EU Solidarity (II)

Experts expect the Corona Crisis to have a serious impact on the EU. Centrifugal forces are already growing stronger.

BERLIN |

BERLIN (Own report) - Experts expect the Corona crisis to have a serious impact on the EU and speculate a possible disintegration of the Union. According to an expert in the USA, the heavy human toll that the pandemic will exact and the feeling "that the European institutions are not helping," could give rise to centrifugal tendencies, particularly in those countries hardest hit, such as Italy and Spain, which are also the countries deeply indebted. Tensions between Germany, on the one hand, and France and Italy on the other, have been already increasing since Berlin unilaterally closed Germany's borders, thereby annulling the Schengen Agreements. Whereas the Élysée Palace has angrily complained about "the unilateral measures at the borders," the pro-EU Italian daily "La Repubblica," notes that Berlin, rather than a detailed coordination "with the partners," in one of the worst crises the Union has faced, it pursues "a national logic." Therefore, the Covid-19 virus has "swept away" the last remaining "illusions" about the EU.

Franco-German Friendship

The German government's extensive closure of Germany's borders has provoked serious resentment, also in France. In a televised statement, President Emmanuel Macron criticized closing the borders within the Union and insisted that, if this measure should be taken, then it should be decided "at EU level."[1] The following day, it was reported that Germany was unilaterally reinforcing its controls at its French borders. On Friday, Tobias Hans, Prime Minister of Saarland, called on French commuters not to continue to pursue their employment in Germany. It was reported that this initiative is supported by Saarland-based companies such as Ford or ZF.[2] Competent authorities in France were caught off guard by the border controls: "I was informed of this by my own police officers," protested Josiane Chevalier, Prefect of the Grand Est, the affected region of France. The measures were taken "without any consultation."[3] The government of Saarland sought to conciliate the lack of consultation with the neighboring country by hoisting the French flag in front of Saarland's official buildings. Sunday, Saarland's Minister for European Affairs, Peter Strobel was quoted exclaiming, "Long Live Franco-German Friendship!"[4]

Risk Area

Germany's closure of its borders, on Monday, not only to France, but to Switzerland, Austria, Luxemburg, as well as to Denmark, has also been angrily received in Paris. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner admits that, this time, a formal "agreement" on the measure was reached. However, the Élysée Palace let it be known, in reference to the fact that the border closure was unilaterally decided by Berlin - that there is considerable resentment at "the unilateral measures taken at the borders."[5] Exceptions are made for commuters - such as doctors or nursing personnel - classified in Germany as "system relevant," and therefore continue to be needed as part of the work force.[6] Anger in Paris is further exacerbated by the fact that Berlin's Robert Koch Institute summarily declared France's entire Grand Est region a "risk area," thereby justifying the extensive border closures. In fact, more than 60 percent of the Covid-19 cases were diagnosed in France's Haut Rhin Department, all of the nine other departments in Grand Est are significantly less infected. The Robert Koch Institute is criticized also for other reasons, because, for example, for several days, it has been publishing statistics on infections and death tolls for the Covid-19 situation in Germany that are out of date, and clearly underestimated - meaning embellished.

EU Backing

Under President Ursula von der Leyen, Berlin has the backing of the EU Commission, on the question of closing the borders. In principle, the commission takes its obligatory position against closing the borders because of it being a violation of the Schengen Agreements. However, von der Leyen's spokesperson, Eric Mamer is quoted having said that Brussels must practically choose between wanting to fight border closures or rather fight to improve the situation - and faced with these options, the President of the Commission chooses the latter.[7] Accordingly, the guidelines that have now been drawn up in Brussels stipulate that border closures are permitted in an "extraordinarily critical situation." According to observers, this formulation in the guidelines cover Germany's border closures, because they prohibit the entry from particular risk areas. However, whether the Czech Republic and Denmark - both have also closed their borders - can apply these new guidelines to their border closures is "questionable," as it stands, "Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania cannot."[8]

Only Rhetoric

Resentment is not only growing in France, but in Italy as well. At the beginning of the week, the left-liberal Italian daily, "La Repubblica" noted that it is "nothing insignificant" that in Berlin, "the capital of the hegemonic nation in Europe," the "hub of the economic and institutional architecture, on which the Union is based," that the decision was taken to close the borders, which annuls the Schengen Agreements. La Repubblica, unlike Italy's rightwing or the milieu around the 5 Star movement, is known to consistently take pro-EU positions even during the Corona crisis. "Pursuing a national logic" Berlin has unilaterally annulled the Schengen Agreements, rather than discuss "with the partners" as Macron, last week, had demanded. Thereby, "in just a few weeks, the virus has swept away the illusions," for which Schengen stands as the symbol of free circulation, observes La Repubblica. When Greece "was remediated at unbearable costs in social suffering" something similar could be observed, when it became "understood that there exists a strict hierarchy in the Union." All this is happening, while relief supplies are arriving in Italy from "wise China," but not from "mistrustful European friends." "That virus has exposed the hypocrisy; all that remains is the rhetoric."[9]

Powerful Centrifugal Force

An expert of Washington's American Enterprise Institute reminds that the unsettled economic tensions that have been accompanying the Union, at least since the major crises in 2007 and 2008, are supplementary to the political ones caused by Germany's border closures. The three other countries, besides Germany, hardest hit by the pandemic - Italy, Spain, and France - are also the countries with the least amount of financial headroom at their disposal, notes the US specialist. Currently Italy's debts are at 134 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Spain and France's are approaching 100 percent. The human toll exacted by the pandemic, the fears arising from it, as well as the feeling - justified or not - "that the European institutions are not helping," could very well "develop into a powerful centrifugal force."[10] "The EU's leaders" are confronted with the choice of "either courageously coming to the aid of the periphery, or the periphery will help itself, as best it can - even at the price of disbanding the eurozone and the EU."

Aid from Beijing

In the meantime, as was announced yesterday, Spain has become the second major EU member country that has turned to China for help in combating the Covid-19 virus. It was reported that the demand for aid had been made last week, after Germany imposed a ban on the export of protective medical equipment. A Chinese team of experts with 31 tons of relief supplies arrived in Rome, already on Thursday, in the meantime, it is reported that Beijing is preparing to deliver testing kits, filter masks, and other protective equipment. In addition, dispatching Chinese doctors to Spain is being discussed; as the People's Republic of China formulates it, it is being "positively considered."[11]

 

[1] Arthur Berdah, Loris Boichot: Coronavirus : ce qu'il faut retenir de l'allocution d'Emmanuel Macron. lefigaro.fr 12.03.2020.

[2] Michael Kipp: Warum Deutschland die Grenze zu Frankreich und Luxemburg schließt. saarbruecker-zeitung.de 15.03.2020.

[3] "Das Virus kennt keine Grenzen". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 14.03.2020.

[4] Michael Kipp: Warum Deutschland die Grenze zu Frankreich und Luxemburg schließt. saarbruecker-zeitung.de 15.03.2020.

[5] An der Grenze. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 17.03.2020.

[6] Michael Kipp: Warum Deutschland die Grenze zu Frankreich und Luxemburg schließt. saarbruecker-zeitung.de 15.03.2020.

[7], [8] Thomas Gutschker: Vollendete Tatsachen. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 17.03.2020.

[9] Stefano Folli: Coronavirus, c'era una volta l'Europa. rep.repubblica.it 15.03.2020.

[10] Dalibor Rohac: Coronavirus could break the EU. politico.eu 16.03.2020.

[11] The Latest. apnews.com 17.03.2020.