What the Coronavirus Means for Europe’s Future

Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, wrote in his memoirs, in 1978, that Europe “would be built through crises, and that it would be the sum of their solutions.” Had Monnet lived to today, he surely would have been disappointed with the way that many E.U. members initially responded to the coronavirus pandemic. When the disease reached the Continent, it was almost as if countries became oblivious of their neighbors—the tenets of the union seemed to vanish when they were needed most. From Germany to Spain, governments treated the transnational health crisis as they would a terrorist threat: as a domestic issue. Borders across the Schengen Area closed, the single market was called into question, and each country adopted its own public-health measures. On March 13th, nearly two months after the Chinese city of Wuhan went into lockdown, the World Health Organization declared Europe to be “the epicenter of the pandemic,” and the shortfalls of isolated action became clear.

To understand how Europe has dealt with covid-19, I interviewed health experts from the countries that have been hit the hardest: Italy, Spain, and France. Silvestro Scotti, the head of the National Federation of Doctors and General Practitioners, spoke about the tragic toll that the disease has taken on health workers in Italy, where more than a hundred doctors have died battling the virus. Antoni Trilla, who oversees the preventive-medicine and epidemiology unit at one of Spain’s most prestigious public hospitals and is an adviser to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, reflected on the speed with which the pandemic unfolded. And Antoine Flahault, a French epidemiologist and the director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, elaborated on the lack of global leadership during the covid-19 crisis. Each of the experts offered insight into how European countries responded to the worst pandemic in a century.

As of mid-April, more than a million coronavirus infections have been recorded across Europe—around half of the world’s confirmed cases. With more than twenty-two thousand fatalities, Italy has the highest death toll of any European nation, followed by Spain and France. However distinct the approach taken by each government may have been, all three countries have had to confront similar challenges: securing medical provisions, protecting health-care workers, and finding ways to reduce the daily number of new cases. Their measures of success—or failure—reflect a lasting disparity in resources, evident in the number of available critical-care beds or the budget allocated for health. (According to the O.E.C.D., Italy and Spain spend roughly three thousand dollars per capita on health every year—nearly half of Germany’s spending.) Such disparities will become all the more evident in the months to come, as members of the E.U. grapple with soaring debt levels, massive unemployment, and shattered economies. Here, again, national self-interests will hover over the principle of solidarity.

Covid-19 is among the myriad crises that Europe has endured in recent years—Brexit, terror attacks, an influx of Syrian and Libyan refugees. Euroskeptic voices will likely emerge stronger in the aftermath of the pandemic, and parties such as the anti-E.U. Five Star Movement will no doubt exploit the fact that Italy had to turn to China for help, after the E.U. refused to provide the medical aid that it had requested. Yet there is still time for members to make amends and to emerge from this crisis in a coördinated fashion, to judiciously implement a European stimulus plan, and to see beyond the Continent’s traditional north-south fractures. Fundamentally, there is still time for Europe to show that the sum of its solutions can prove greater than its missteps.

Stephania Taladrid