Coronavirus: the European Union in search of cohesion

Members of the European Parliament wear masks during a mini plenary session in Brussels on April 16, 2020. JOHN THYS / AFP

Text by: Anissa El Jabri Follow

After the 2008 financial crisis and the refugee crisis in 2015, is the Covid-19 crisis too much for a European Union threatened with implosion? Or the opportunity to reinvent yourself and revive? The 27 have in any case started by reconnecting with their old demons: each for himself, then the countries of the North against those of the South, those of the East facing the West. Before trying to pull it together.


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January 31, 2020: state of health emergency declared in Italy, first call for help from Rome to Europeans

The government is calling for an extraordinary meeting of European health ministers. It takes place on February 13. The 27 ministers are content to call for better coordination of national measures. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriaki says there has been "  no reported drug shortage so far  ."

February 15: European Center for Disease Control and Prevention satisfied

Rapid execution of molecular diagnostics by networks of specialized European laboratories  " and "  good geographic coverage for the tests  ", for him all the signals are green and everything is ready.

February 28: Italy activates the European Civil Protection Mechanism

The country is asking its European partners to help it provide protective masks and medical protections.

March 8 and 9, 2020: Italy under the hood, still alone

The president of the Italian Council Giuseppe Conte places in quarantine the Italian regions most affected on March 8, before extending this measure the following day to the whole of the territory. At the same time, Austria decided to close its border with the country almost. With only 206 cases and not a single death across its territory, Austria is the first country bordering Italy to introduce such restrictions. It is quickly followed by Slovenia, to the northeast.

March 9: "  Situation monitored in Italy  " according to Ursula von der Leyen

The President of the European Commission is holding a press conference in Brussels to mark her first hundred days at the head of the Commission. Ursula von der Leyen evokes the "Green Deal", ecology, economy ... To a question asked about the coronavirus, she answers: "  We are following the situation in Italy  ".

March 10: first European video conference

A few hours before this first virtual summit, the Italian ambassador to the EU signs a forum on the Politico site: "  Rome must not be left alone to manage this crisis,  " writes Maurizio Massari. “  The time has come for the EU to go beyond engagement and consultation, with concrete, swift and effective emergency measures. In this battle, we face two terrible enemies: panic and selfishness. If we do not wake up immediately, we run the risk of falling into posterity, like the leaders of 1914 who marched towards war with their eyes closed, like sleepwalkers  ”.

During this informal summit, Italy said it was let go by France and Germany who limited their exports of sanitary equipment to protect themselves from the disease. Rome ended up relying on China, which is about to deliver a hundred thousand masks and a thousand breathing apparatus.

At the end of this council, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the European Council Charles Michel present a first recovery plan aimed at supporting European states in their fight against the epidemic: unlocking 25 billion euros to support the economy and various health systems.

The European Commission also announces that the budgetary constraints defined in the Stability and Growth Pact have been relaxed to allow different governments to finance exceptional measures to support their economies. A first and serious penknife in the stability pact and the rule of 3% maximum deficit.


The EU advocates cooperation, but finds it very difficult to apply it within it. In the days that follow, everyone decides in their own corner and the Schengen area bristles with barriers.

March 12: Slovakia and the Czech Republic reinstate border control measures.

March 13:   Denmark, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Cyprus follow them. Slovakia closes its borders with its close neighbors: Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Poland.

March 15: Germany closes its borders with five of its neighbors (France, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark). Unheard of since the creation of the Schengen area in 1995.

March 16: The Czech Republic and Spain announce the closure of all their borders. Between France and Spain, only 11 border posts today allow this limited passage.

March 17th

Hungary in turn closes its borders to foreigners, except those residing in the country.

European Union leaders decide to close the Union's external borders for 30 days. The closure has been extended and will likely not be lifted until at least September.


March 20: Stability Pact Suspension

A completely new announcement and a first relief for the countries hard hit by the crisis. The President of the European Commission proposes the suspension of the Stability Pact, and with it, the rules of budgetary discipline imposed on the states that share the euro. Today, and this is new and has never been done before, we are triggering the general notwithstanding clause  " which allows these rules to be suspended, she said in a video posted on Twitter. It will allow governments to inject into the economy as much as necessary  " to fight against the looming recession, without having to respect the limit of 3% of GDP for the public deficit and 60% of GDP for the debt . The measure was validated by the finance ministers on March 23.

March 22: masks for Italy stopped by the Czech Republic

While Italy recorded a new "record" of 800 deaths in 24 hours that day, anger on the peninsula. 680,000 masks and respirators, sent by China to Italy to help contain the epidemic of coronavirus, were recovered by the Czech Republic, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica , confirming information first revealed by the Rai. The next day, the Czech Republic advances an "  error  ", assuring that it did not know the origin of these masks, recovered by its customs.

March 25-26: the European Council of Discord

A meeting under high tension and names of birds flying, divisions deeper than ever. Germany but also the Netherlands are not giving an inch to their longstanding opposition to the creation of a "  common debt instrument  ". An idea brought by nine countries at the initiative of France: Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. With this "letter of the nine", it is the second time since the start of the five-year period that Emmanuel Macron has taken a European initiative without Germany.

The summit is a failure and the bitterness of the countries of the South is expressed first of all vis-à-vis the Netherlands. At issue, this suggestion by the Dutch Minister of Finance Wopke Hoekstra: the opening of a European investigation to determine why certain EU member states do not have budgetary margin to face the current health crisis. A " disgusting  " proposal  said the Portuguese Prime Minister during his press conference on Thursday 25 in the evening. On Friday morning the 26th, Antonio Costa drives the point home: "  It is an absolute unconsciousness and this recurring pettiness completely undermines what makes the spirit of the Union and represents a threat for its future  ".  

An anger that is spreading and this time all the so-called "frugal" countries are targeted without being named. Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González writes in a tweet: “  We are together in this European boat which has struck an unexpected iceberg. We all share the same risk and we don't have time to discuss so-called 1st and 2nd class tickets  . ” Finally Luigi Di Maio, the head of Italian diplomacy, spoke on Facebook: "  We expect loyalty from our European partners, we are waiting for Europe to do its part, because fine words are not don't know what to do with it.  "

March 30: Hungary beyond the nails of the rule of law?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban gets the green light from Parliament to legislate by ordinance in the context of an indefinite state of emergency. Its detractors denounce a "  coup  " of the national-conservative government.

Minimum service on the Brussels side: in a press release the next day, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen reminds that no emergency measure can last indefinitely. The European Commission, she said, will monitor the application of emergency measures in each of the Member States to ensure that they respect the fundamental values ​​of the Union.


April 2: Europe's apologies to Italy

Ursula von der Leyen apologizes to Italy "  most sincerely  " for the lack of European solidarity in the daily La Repubblica and then before the European Parliament, on behalf of "  Europe as a whole  ".

April 7: European solidarity, a pavement in the pond in Germany

Editorial translated into French, English, Spanish and Italian by the editor-in-chief of the titled Spiegel : "By refusing eurobonds, Germany is showing selfishness, obstinacy and cowardice". "   Europe must be much more than an alliance of egocentrics  " writes Steffen Klusmann.

April 15, 2020: attempt at a European scale deconfinement strategy

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveils a "European roadmap for lifting the containment measures for Covid-19", which aims to coordinate Member States' decisions on deconfinement. Failure. States decide for themselves.  

17 April: MEPs increase pressure on states

Also meeting by videoconference, on the occasion of the plenary session of 16 and 17 April, the different political groups of the European Parliament are launching a joint call for a massive recovery plan. They invite heads of state and government to “  strike hard  ” at the next European Council on April 23, dedicated to the recovery fund.

23 April: European Council instructs the Commission to define a recovery plan

Fourth meeting by video conference since the start of the Covid-19 crisis and complicated discussions. After more than four hours of video conference summit, "  there is no consensus today  " on the solutions to be brought to the most serious economic crisis since 1945, says Emmanuel Macron. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, however, refers to an "  important step  ".

All agree on the need for a multiannual budget revised upwards and adapted to the crisis, EU leaders remain divided on the amount and the method of financing a common recovery plan, which should reach several hundred billion euros.

The European Commission will present its detailed proposal on May 6. It will have to be debated at the next European Council, but for the Élysée, such essential decisions can only be taken during a physical meeting of the 27. Difficult to predict when it can take place, but no one anticipates today before summer.

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