Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution. All the EU countries are going their own way, and the most exemplary facets of European integration, like free trade and movement, have vanished overnight. Border checks and closures have rendered the Schengen Agreement null and void to a large extent. Considering how some European countries (like Denmark) were so eager to implement de facto border checks for years now, one cannot help but wonder if such measures will only be temporary.
Nonetheless, the most drastic example of breaking of the Union came from the member that has the reputation of preserving it the most — Germany.
Berlin initially halted exports of protective medical clothing and other medical supplies like gloves and masks by issuing a decree on March 12. The EU Commission was clearly displeased by this “Germany first” attitude: EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and the European Union objected by declaring that “Solidarity is key.” The EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, criticized Germany by insinuating that what Berlin is doing may be legally permitted by the Union’s treaties, but it is not fair play. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also denounced restrictions on medical exports, saying they undermined the EU single market at exactly a time when it needs to function well. Germany had to backtrack from the decree in three days, amending it to allow exports of protective medical equipment. The German Economy Ministry declared that: “The government’s aim is to protect people in Germany. Equally, the Government’s central principle is to ensure European solidarity at the time of the coronavirus crisis.”
Germany’s “hamsterkauf” (a creative German word for hoarding stuff) regarding medical supplies was also met with disdain by Switzerland. German Ambassador Otto Lampe was summoned by Swiss authorities over the horror Bern faced when a shipment of 240,000 face masks on their way to Switzerland were stopped at the border by German customs.
Austria’s Economy Minister Margarete Schramboeck went as far to argue that Germany was halting the transfer of medical products that are specifically for the Austrian market, stating that “Germany is holding back products for Austria just because they happen to be stored in a German location.”
Meanwhile, the virulent crisis turned out to be yet another occasion on which Turkey and the EU were able to further advance their “social distancing.” Turkey had already curbed the export of medical equipment like masks, goggles and gloves on March 4. Ankara’s decision was not even questioned by Brussels and EU countries, and treated was treated as akin to Russia's belligerent and aloof behavior towards Europe.
However, the most interesting “distancing” measure was the travel ban imposed on nine European countries by the Interior Ministry of Turkey. On March 14, a decree was issued barring travel from Germany, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Austria and Sweden. This abrupt ban put so much pressure on Turkish citizens that happened to be abroad that the ban had to be relaxed for a few days so that Turkey could repatriate its citizens and allow return travel from these countries. Simultaneously, the final batch of 5,300 Turkish citizens were allowed to return from their Umrah visit to the Muslim holy lands in Saudi Arabia. As it turned out, Turkey has had at least 21,000 Umrah visitors returning from Saudi Arabia in the last weeks — and what’s more, they were freely circulating around with no health checks after brushing shoulders with fellow Muslims from all around the world as coronavirus peaked globally. Saudi Arabia itself has gone into a substantial lockdown, curbing social life to a significant degree and canceling all international flights just after Turkey’s Umrah visitors were sent back home.
Just again, as a coincidence, most of the European countries that Turkey imposed travel bans upon were those who opposed further EU refugee aid to Ankara. Let alone the refugee aid controversy, France, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands do not have amazing relations with Turkey for some time now. Germany is Ankara’s favorite usual suspect that it likes to bash, anyway. One cannot help but wonder if Turkey’s travel ban on Europe is the manifestation of other things than virus fear.
Ironically enough, the EU Commission chose to show off its commanding clout by recommending a blanket travel ban. EU Commission President von der Leyen recommended to all member states to stop “nonessential” entries to Europe for 30-days; with possible extensions. “Nonessential” travelers include everybody except for medical personnel who may aid combating “corona” and transport staff ensuring the flow of commercial goods. And those who cannot be legally barred; meaning residents of the EU and diplomats.
So, the EU did indeed registered a pulse institutionally-indicating that it is alive. But its show of reanimation turned out to be carrying travel bans to the extent that even their current pioneer Donald Trump could not have envisaged. In other words, “geostrategic Commission” foreseen by von der Leyen turned out to be “viruxenophobic Commission”; taking travel bans to viral levels.
It is too early yet to contemplate post-virus Europe: Italy’s tragic situation breaks one’s heart even from a distance. Spain is just embarking on its lockdown. Britain may be “Brexiting” — drifting away not just from Europe but also the rest of the world by banking on the development of “herd immunity.” Turkey itself seems to be pursuing a hybrid approach, seemingly taking “social distancing measures” while actually giving into the herd immunity approach of Britain.
But, it seems that the absence of European solidarity and coherence in developing a common response and strategy vis-a-vis the corona crisis is an indication of another epidemic: governments turning to the national level instead of opting for cooperation and solidarity while embracing courageous leadership.