19 March 2020

Europe’s ‘solidarity’ crumbles in the face of a crisis

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The Coronavirus crisis has relegated all other issues to the fringes, becoming a truly universal crisis for us all. Despite this, politics never stops. Even in the Virus Times, there are politicians happy to use newly-acquired powers, both for personal gain and to reshape their alliances, which could look starkly different in the post-virus world.

One of the most remarkable developments of recent weeks has been China – whose initial response to the virus was so reprehensible – trying to portray itself as the Good Samaritan. The EU, by contrast, has seemed pretty much impotent. Indeed, as things stand it looks like Beijing is winning the propaganda war.

Among the most striking examples was a press conference earlier this week from Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic. While the European media was fixated on rumours that Donald Trump wanted to buy the exclusive rights to a coronavirus vaccine from a German company, the EU was agreeing on an export ban of “protective equipment”, meaning EU member states can still trade medical equipment within the bloc, but not to outside countries.

Vucic had a difficult time understanding this, as his country Serbia has been an accession candidate to the EU since 2011. Despite being seemingly short on supply of protective equipment, Serbia was locked out of the EU scheme – its supposed European solidarity clearly not extending to the whole continent.

“By now, you all understood that European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper,” Vucic raged. “As of today, we are not eligible to import medical equipment from the EU. That resolution was made by people that lectured us here that we are not supposed to purchase goods from China.”

Not to worry though – Vucic had already found a new trading partner: “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”

Serbia’s pivot east is just one example of the EU’s failure to grip the situation. As the crisis continued to escalate last week, the Commission was still releasing – business as usual – its new industrial strategy and a Circular Economy Action Plan. On the 100th day of Ursula von der Leyen’s Presidency, she spent little more than 90 seconds talking about the virus – even as Italy was already completely locked down. As Matthew Karnitschnig of Politico writes, “like an eager pupil who wanted to show the world how well she had prepared for her big speech, von der Leyen seemed almost offended that reporters were forcing her to address the gathering coronavirus storm”.

Italy learned its lessons from the Commission’s obliviousness and the ignorance of other member states, some of whom tried to protect their medical equipment instead of offering help. Maurizio Massari, the country’s permanent representative of the EU, complained that while Italy had asked the EU for medical equipment, “unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call.” Instead, “only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity”.

When a plane from China eventually arrived in Italy with medicine, equipment, and doctors, Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio proudly published a video of the event. Meanwhile, Brussels may be the EU’s host city, but when it’s Beijing that has sent the Belgians 1 million masks to help contain the virus’ spread.

The slow EU response and lack of cooperation among member states has shown how far apart different countries are when the chips are down, and the utter inadequacy of the Commission’s self-congratulatory navel-gazing. It would have been relatively easy, for instance, to agree a travel ban on arrivals from China in the early stages of the virus.

Instead, until  as recently as two days ago passenger flights from China were still arriving in European airports. Member states have simply been doing their own thing. If this crisis shows anythings, it’s that the much-vaunted ‘solidarity’ on the continent withers pretty quickly under duress. That also suggests that the uber-federalists’ dream of some kind of United States of Europe is little more than that – a dream.

Equally shocking has been the way China has successfully changed the narrative about its role in the crisis. In the first few weeks of this year the Communist Party was “far more effective in stopping the spread of information about the coronavirus than in stopping the spread of the coronavirus itself,” as David Harsanyi argues.

In December, Chinese scientists has raised the alarm, but were forced to stop tests and destroy samples. Doctors warning about the potential danger were detained – and are still being detained today if they criticise the government’s approach. In what now looks an act of staggering negligence, the Chinese government let around five million people leave Wuhan without screening while it was already aware of the existence of the virus. Likewise, President Xi Jinping was aware the virus had emerged two weeks before he first mentioned it publicly.

So, while we can certainly criticise elements of the Western response, there is no way around the fact that the Communist Party’s negligence and authoritarianism created this crisis. Whatever Beijing’s slick, fake news propaganda about the origins of the disease, we should not lose sight of their central role in this catastrophe.

Now, Beijing casts itself as the only government that has put the virus under control and is directing its energies to helping others. The country’s UN Ambassador piously explained that for China, “a friend in need is a friend in deed. We’ll do whatever we can to help other countries in fighting the COVID-19”. And others have been sucked in – just look at the World Health Organisation’s Secretary General writing about the “heartwarming example of solidarity” of China. The WHO has also argued that calling the virus the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’ is “racist” – which might be true, but is hardly the issue that should be foremost in their minds at this time.

The public relations war might seem of secondary importance at the moment, when we are in the full throes of the virus’ havoc. But if China succeeds in re-scripting the story, it will matter a great deal after the chaos has subsided. Despite being the cause of the crisis, it could be the Chinese Communist Party that emerges from this with its influence amplified – and new friends willing to make its case.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.