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"But where was the EU?" How Europe failed Italy in the midst of a health crisis

The EU’s first actions with respect to the COVID-19 global emergency started when, following the first few cases registered in the Union, the Presidency of the Council of the EU activated the Integrated Political Crisis Response at the end of January, to help the coordination and the sharing of information between political actors of the EU. From that day until February 7th, several meetings of the Health Security Committee concluded that national health systems of the member states and the EU bodies were highly prepared to face a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. Furthermore, an EU Council meeting of February 13th recognized the global threat and declared, inter alia, its readiness to examine [...] possible ways and means to provide assistance.

It seemed like we were ready to fight. At the same time, though, such a conflict was deemed an improbable event. After all, Wuhan is 8,677 kilometres away from Bruxelles.

But viruses travel fast on trains and planes and the day of the battle eventually came. Since February 21st to March 20th 2020, 102,649 cases have been reported in the EU and the UK, with 4,885 deaths. Italy is the most affected among European countries, registering almost 40% of all European cases.

Where was the EU?

Now, the question that spontaneously arises is: what was done during the three weeks that followed the outbreak of the virus, until the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic? The WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that such a decision was taken on the basis of the “alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction”.

“Inaction” is the key word here. The EU’s response, despite the declarations made before the COVID-19 became a real issue, has been inadequate and tardy. No binding decision was taken before the middle of March, when the EU Commission finally proposed to allocate a €37 billion investment initiative to face the emergency, partially restricted the export of individual protection devices like masks and goggles outside the EU, and put together a team of scientific experts to design guidelines and risk-management measures. Similarly, at a national level the member states did not impose restrictive, coordinated measures until very recently, underestimating the threat.

What other countries have (not) done

It’s true that countries have full competence for what concerns health policies and the supply of medical equipment, as clearly stated by article 168 of the Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The EU can only “complement national policies” and “support cooperation between member countries in the field of public health”.

However, Italian politicians have appealed to the Solidarity Clause (Article 222 of the TFEU), which requires that “the Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster”.

The EU can do so through tools such as the Civil Protection Mechanism (CPI), established in 2001 to provide governmental aid and enhance cooperation between the member states in response to disasters. Any country can appeal to other member states for assets, capital, assistance or financial support when the “scale of an emergency overwhelms the response capabilities”. On February 27th, Italy turned to the CPI asking for medical equipment to tackle the emergency, but the request was not listened to by any country. “The coronavirus crisis is similar to the refugee crisis: Countries that are not immediately affected are mostly not willing to help,” Italy’s EU ambassador Maurizio Massari said. “Different countries obviously have different threat perceptions. We [Italy] feel that the coronavirus is a global and European threat that needs a European response, but other countries don’t see it that way.”

One of the few countries that has offered significant aid to Italy is China, although it has just gone through the same disaster which has caused 3,254 deaths. Or maybe it is precisely for this reason that a plane from Beijing full of medical equipment and skilled doctors landed in Rome on March 12th. Because the Chinese people have experienced the COVID-19 emergency firsthand, they surely do not want to waste time underestimating, criticizing, playing for time.

In my opinion, in people’s perception the recent measures undertaken by the EU Commission are seen as ‘patches’ to compensate for the initial idleness, and had the COVID-19 not become a pandemic there would have been little willingness to help the countries which have been hit the hardest, such as Italy. Moreover, in circumstances like these Italians do not feel the other member states’ support either. No country responded to Italy’s request through the CPI, and, in fact, in the beginning France and Germany completely blocked the export of protective masks. Instead, what Italians have come to rely on is the incredible effort of everyone involved in the emergency, starting from the medical staff, the administration, the police and the civil protection. They prefer showing their gratitude towards them by singing folk tunes from their balconies, rather than clapping for the EU’s slow intervention.

Daydreaming from a balcony

The thing is, this is not about Italy. It is about Europe, our home. If measures had been implemented earlier, we could have avoided, or at least reduced, the spread of the virus all across our Union. Had they collaborated more, other countries could have learnt from China’s and Italy’s experience more quickly and maybe, who knows, we would not be facing a pandemic right now.

Or maybe this would have happened no matter what. You know what Italians say, “history is not made with ifs”.

Perhaps, instead, the COVID-19 will be somehow useful in reminding us that the European cohesion we have achieved is far from perfect, that the cooperation between member states can be very weak and superficial at times and we cannot take the European Union for granted. Nevertheless, this is not a good reason to give up on the EU. It should rather be seen as a further incentive to strive for it, to dream big and work hard everyday to make it look like our home.

I have loved seeing how Italians try to lighten up their quarantine. In times like this, when, as the psychologist Francesca Morelli wrote, we have become the ones that are discriminated, segregated, blocked at the borders although we are western and white, it is natural to do something that connects us all together, like singing the national anthem.

But if I could daydream for a minute, I would make a wish that if some years from now our Spanish or French or German neighbours are going through hard times, we would feel the tragedy as if it was ours, and it would be instinctive to express our solidarity to them whistling the notes of the European anthem, that binds us all together.

In this series, our writers share their thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on personal experiences and observations during this difficult time. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect positions of European Generation.

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