The European Union was founded with the vision of unity for its Member States. Its supporters highlight exactly this also as the spirit governing its function. Indicatively in article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty it is mentioned that: “1. The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples, 2. The Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers.. 3. The Union…shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member States”. Additionally in article 3a it is mentioned that: 3. Pursuant to the principle of sincere cooperation, the Union and the Member States shall, in full mutual respect, assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from the Treaties. The Member States shall take any appropriate measure, general or particular, to ensure fulfillment of the obligations arising out of the Treaties or resulting from the acts of the institutions of the Union. The Member States shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardize the attainment of the Union’s objectives”. But has Europe lived up to its words during major cases of crisis that have afflicted member states?
The world is experiencing a pandemic of COVID 19. In this context Italy seems to be the country in Europe and the European Union suffering up to now the highest numbers of patients dying. It has been obliged to take hard lockdown measures to contain and stop the spread of the virus. As this is an issue of health, of the basic element to guard in order to have safety, one would expect the biggest possible expression of solidarity between European Member countries. However this virus has revealed that in front of health hazards every Member State is for itself, exactly like we see often in societies where everyone acts for himself. Only now there is some news indicating that finally Germany will send face masks to Italy, while generally up to now it was China before other EU countries to show active solidarity to the Italian struggle against COVID 19. Moreover, European countries stopped flights to and from Italy and some of them generally secured their borders closing them. Prevention got almost exclusively a national hue, detached from a European perspective. The well-being and safety of the European people as a whole is secondary to the well-being and safety of the people of every individual European country. “Internal safety” is above any notion of European safety and the Nation-State is reborn. But was it really ever dead?
This the not the first time the governments of each European Member State work for what they perceive as good and beneficial for “their own people”, “ their own nation”. Every government after all feels responsible to the population that elects it. The terrorism threat and the refugee crisis are notorious examples of how the Schengen Agreement, one of the most emblematic elements of the European Union, was suspended by many countries on the grounds of a serious threat to an individual state’s “public policy or internal security”. Despite the founding of the European Counter-Terrorism Centre and the function of Europol, in practice national police agencies have not cooperated in ways adequate to make sure an attack would not take place in one European country based on info held by another European country. Additionally, especially about the refugee problem, it seems that Italy and Greece bear disproportionally the largest part of it, while the EU and the countries that are not the gate of entrance in Europe turn a blind eye to the issue. As long as the refugees do not enter their national soil, there seems to be no problem to deal with. On top of that, nationalist groups inside European countries advocate for the safety and security of their own nation exclusively. It seems ironic, but at the end of the day, both nationalists (who oppose the European Union in principle) as well as the EU and its Member States, all promote the priority of the safety, security and the well-being of every individual national state and its population.
Things have not been better with the financial crisis that has hit certain countries of the European Union. A lot of criticism has been raised about the lack of solidarity from the rest of the EU countries with the attitude: “your problem, your way out, we are not paying for you” and solutions that were on a quid pro quo basis of economic help. It should be highlighted that even in this difficult situation Italy is in currently, it pretty much got the response “you are on your own” from the European Central Bank regarding its financial situation that has been affected also by the COVID 19 outbreak.
If the European Union is to have a future without other countries following at some point the Brexit example, it has to be more than a Union with the same currency. It has to stand up for its people in total, for the people of the European Union. Individual countries should act towards one another as rings of a chain that must not be broken. Serious threats like that of terrorism and now COVID 19 request of Member States to think in ways of social responsibility, like the one we request at the level of individual citizens in the context of society. For everyone to have safety and security, for the whole society to have safety and security, citizens should look beyond their own backyard with a less myopic version of individualism. In the same way, European Member States have to see at any crisis that is taking place in other countries of the EU as also their problem, being ready to assist. This should not driven just by a mentality based on being a large European family. It should be based on stronger European institutions that make the EU function and respond really like one coordinated entity.
What Italy is experiencing now is not an internal problem, it is a European problem. The people who lose their lives are not just Italian citizens, they are European citizens. What is happening today in Italy (and will happen almost certainly to other EU Member States soon) is not a reason for estrangement and distance, but an opportunity and challenge for Europe to show its real potential. Can it have a collective, coordinated, cooperative strategy of addressing crisis as one institutional entity? After terrorism, the financial crisis and the refugee issue, Europe is put to a new test and COVID 19 doesn’t allow any failure.