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EU Needs To Start Changing Its Bureaucratic Ways – OpEd

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By Luke Coffey*

Europe has been devastated by the ongoing global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. At the time of writing, almost 900,000 cases had been reported across the continent. Countries from Italy and Spain in Europe’s south to Denmark and Sweden in the north have been hit hard. The UK prime minister spent four days in intensive care suffering from the virus. Thankfully, he seems to be making a speedy recovery. Cases are also starting to increase in the Balkans, where the medical infrastructure is not as advanced as in Western Europe. Iceland has among the most cases in the world on a per capita basis.

Of course, any initial governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic has to come from local and national authorities. But, when local and national medical provisions and supply chains become overwhelmed, countries tend to look toward institutions and alliances that they have joined for help. 

In the case of Europe, there have been two main institutional actors that have played a role in the COVID-19 outbreak across the continent: NATO and the EU. The former has really shone during the crisis. The latter’s response has made some people, like Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, question the bloc’s future. For an organization that likes to preach unity, there has been little such unity across the EU in the face of the pandemic. 

In the weeks leading up to the virus’s spread across Europe, national capitals did what sovereign states do: They looked after their own interests first, shunning the broader interests of the union as a whole. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been accused of dithering, denial and aloofness in the early days of the crisis. Croatia, which is holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, saw its health minister fired over a domestic political scandal involving dodgy real estate deals. This left the Croatian government distracted and delayed in leading and coordinating an EU response to what is now Europe’s biggest health crisis in a century.

There is no agreement among the EU members over the issue of so-called “coronabonds,” which would see all members share the burden of paying off the massive debt that will be incurred during the economic crisis the pandemic has created. The EU has also failed to invoke a mechanism called the “Solidarity Clause,” which would help focus more resources and tools inside the EU to deal with COVID-19. This clause has never been used. If not now, then when?

To put it bluntly, the EU failed to deliver for its member states early on. Even the EU’s top scientist, Mauro Ferrari, resigned over the way it was mishandling the crisis. The steps the EU has now taken are probably too little, too late.

Just like with the situation in the Balkans in the 1990s, NATO was able to step into the breach and deal with issues in a way the EU has never been able to. Thankfully, NATO has been able to demonstrate flexibility, adaptability and commitment to its member states.

In NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept — an official policy document that is supposed to guide the alliance in preparing for future threats — there is not a single mention of the word “pandemic.” Luckily, this has not stopped the alliance from acting. NATO has been doing a great job coordinating requests for assistance from its members and partners during the pandemic through its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, which it established in 1998.

Another NATO asset that has proven to be useful is its Strategic Airlift Capability, which is a program that gives some of its smaller members access to military cargo planes they otherwise would not have. For example, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia have used this program to receive deliveries of medical supplies from South Korea. The Netherlands even used it to transport intensive care units to Dutch Sint Maarten, thousands of kilometers away in the Caribbean. 

We saw a glimpse of what happens when Europe fails to act and a vacuum is created: The vacuum is quickly filled by countries like China and Russia, using a crisis to push their national agendas. At first, China gained goodwill across much of Europe for its quick delivery of testing kits and personal protective equipment for medical staff. However, as countries started to find out, much of this equipment was faulty. 

Russia took advantage of the desperate situation in Northern Italy to send a team of military doctors to the country. Footage of Russian military vehicles in convoy riding around a NATO and EU country while flying the Russian flag was great propaganda material for Moscow. But it has since been reported that some of the so-called medical officials and doctors in the Russian delegation were actually intelligence officers. 

The actions of China and Russia show why the stakes are too high for inaction. The EU must learn from its poor early response and work to regain the trust and goodwill of many of its member states. NATO, on the other hand, must continue to do what it does best — helping its members in times of crisis. 

Countries are willing to give up some sovereignty by joining organizations like the EU because they hope and expect that members will pool their resources to work together for the common good. But this crisis has shown that the EU is unable to deliver for all of its members in the way that many had hoped. 

Overall, NATO is coming out of this crisis looking capable, competent and in control. The EU is looking inept, incompetent and incapable. 

Will the EU learn from its mistakes and adapt? It remains to be seen. But if the EU wants to have a future, it had better start changing its bureaucratic and stuffy ways. 

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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