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Covid has exposed the myth of European Union solidarity

Friday, 02 April 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The Coronavirus outbreak has seen a rise in tensions in inter-European relations.

The epidemic has exposed that EU member states will pursue their interest regardless of what is in the interest of the Union as a whole. The procurement and rollout of the Covid vaccine highlights that there is no such thing as EU solidarity between member states or with countries around the world. That is simply a rhetorical word used mainly in Brussels, but in practical reality it is a myth.

The word solidarity is a word in the European context, often used as an example of the benefits of membership of the European Union. The word is defined as “agreement between and support for the members of a group, especially a political group.” It is a favorite theme of supporters of the European Union.

As former president Jean Claude Juncker said, “Solidarity is the glue that keeps our Union together.” The word not only has rhetorical significance, but it also has a public policy significance. Example of this being the EU solidarity fund which provides funds to member states of the Union in case of natural disasters.

Despite its significance in rhetorical and political terms, the covid pandemic has shown that solidarity applies only if it benefits the European Union as an organization or powerful members such as Germany and France at the detriment of other members states.

In the beginnings of the pandemic, this myth was shown in the lack of EU support toward Italy. It criticized the lack of support it was receiving from Brussels, leading Mario Draghi to lament that “the solidarity that should have been a spontaneous act, was the result of negotiations.”

Another example of the myth of solidarity was the reintroduction of border controls between members states. It was surprising given that European politicians pride themselves in the idea of freedom of movements of European citizens, considering it one the important cornerstones of the European Union.

Most recent examples have been the Covid vaccine rollout within the European Union. A rollout which has seen member states complain about the unfair distribution of vaccines, with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and other leaders calling for a “corrective mechanism” for vaccine distribution.

The rollout has seen EU “solidarity” temporarily imposing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, amid the problems with the procurement and the rollout of the vaccine towards members states. A process which sees EU members state far behind in vaccine doses per 100 people to countries such as the United Kingdom and United States.

The lack of solidarity between member states also applies toward non-member countries, with President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen calling for an export ban of the AstraZeneca vaccine if it does not meet its contractual obligations. A ban which will affect not only the United Kingdom, but other countries wishing to obtain the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This examples of the lack of solidarity not only shows the debacle which has been the European Commission-led vaccine procurement and rollout program. Despite the idea of EU solidarity being central to the union, members states and the Commission will pursue their interests. As the recent decision of Italy to block vaccines being exported to Australia shows.

The covid pandemic has shown that EU solidarity works if it benefits the EU’s governance structure or the individual interests of the member states. This solidarity will breakdown if EU governance is unable to address the problems facing the Union and the members states. Or if member states see that national action is more effective than EU-led initiatives even if it breaks solidarity.

The pandemic in showing the myth of EU solidarity does raise questions for the future development of the European Union. First, if it leads to rising Euroscepticism in member states such as Italy. Second, if member states continue will continue allowing for EU-led policy initiatives into areas reserved to member states. Finally, f further integration will be pursued despite solidarity not being shown and acted upon.

Solidarity is an attractive idea for those who favor global governance structures such as the European Union and for those who which for the nation state to go to the dustbin of history. But it is a myth that not only applies to the European Union but also other global governance institution. That shows that it will always be secondary to the interest of the nation state.