Blog post 200410

The EU facing the coronavirus:
A political urgency to embody European solidarity

By Thierry Chopin, Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of Lille (ESPOL), Special Adviser at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, Nicole Koenig, Deputy Director, Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin, & Sébastien Maillard, Director, Jacques Delors Institute in Paris

“The climate that seems to prevail among Heads of State or government and the lack of European solidarity are putting the European Union in mortal danger,” Jacques Delors warned in an exceptional public speech in the middle of Europe’s devastating coronavirus crisis. This lack of solidarity has already left its mark on public opinion, especially in Italy, as divisions unfolded during the March European Council.

The extent of this health crisis and the severe economic recession, that will be triggered as a result of the drastic measures currently underway to curb the pandemic, call for a collective response from European leaders, with solidarity as the rallying force. Solidarity is not just a slogan, but a foundation of the European construction which, in support of its health and budgetary implications, requires a political embodiment commensurate with these historical circumstances that must be overcome. As Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged, “the European Union is facing its greatest test since its creation.”

Indeed, the present crisis requires the solidarity that has guided European construction since its very first steps. The Schuman Declaration, whose 70th anniversary will be celebrated on May 9th, called for “concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” The very concept of “community” stands for open and trusting exchanges between its members, sharing resources, and mutual assistance within this community. Moving from Communities to a Union has not taken anything away from the threefold dynamic underpinning the European project, summed up by Jacques Delors in his famous statement: “Competition that stimulates, cooperation that strengthens, and solidarity that unites.”

At its core, this solidarity is rooted in the “spiritual and moral heritage” to which the EU refers in the preamble of its Charter of Fundamental Rights. But it has developed as a result of the interdependence and interests linked to the preservation of the European project and its common goods, which today are represented by the internal market and the euro. This self-serving, yet mutual assistance makes European solidarity all the more obvious, without removing any emotional motive or altruistic justification.

The implementation of European solidarity relies on established legal frameworks, mechanisms, funds, and programmes financed by the European budget. Over the past two decades, new EU instruments, created explicitly for the sake of solidarity, have been added: the “Solidarity Clause,” the “European Union Solidarity Fund,” and more recently, the “European Solidarity Corps.”

Despite the wide-ranging scale and breadth of these tools, the implementation of European solidarity is limited when it comes to healthcare. Firstly, its extent depends on the scope of EU competences, which are exercised almost entirely by Member States in line with the principle of subsidiarity. It has been recalled since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak that EU competences within this field are only supportive, as EU institutions do not directly possess the personnel or resources necessary to intervene during an emergency. This did not prevent the European Central Bank from taking action, nor did it stop the Commission from identifying the legal bases that would allow for numerous initiatives to help states and citizens in distress.

Despite limited competences, European solidarity can be indirectly exercised in other ways. By relaxing or temporarily suspending a number of measures related to the competition rules of the Single Market (state aid) and the fiscal framework (European Stability and Growth Pact), the Commission made it easier for Member States to invoke national solidarity mechanisms. Solidarity is thus enabled through the European level.

However, as we are facing a challenge of an unprecedented scale that is shared shared by all twenty-seven members, we need more concrete articulations of European solidarity. This solidarity requires (1) an official activation, (2) a Franco-German initiative, (3) a European representative providing a face to the common struggle and counterbalancing the current lack of European leadership at the level of the European Council, (4) and a geopolitical strategy including global solidarity measures and a more systematic communication strategy (5). Such political initiatives are necessary to tackle a crisis that has already given rise to significant “EU-bashing,” ultimately putting the future of the European project in danger.