April 8, 2021


Why Can't Europe Cope With the Coronavirus?: Three factors explain why most European countries have found it difficult to deal with the pandemic: an unsuitable level of integration, an inability to make rapid decisions, and a breakdown of trust between governments and the governed. (Stefan Lehne, 4/08/21, Carnegie Europe)

First, EU states are too integrated to manage the crisis separately and not integrated enough to do so collectively.

Several countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, have performed well in the pandemic because they have solid administrations and full control of their borders. In Europe, giving up control of national borders is part of the essence of integration. Many governments have tried to restrict travel during the pandemic, but in a haphazard fashion that has created disruptions yet hardly impeded the freedom of movement of the virus. The European Commission's efforts at imposing some order have failed, as it has been impossible to reconcile the interests of governments trying to keep their populations at home and those of countries that depend on tourism.

Top-down crisis management from Brussels was never a real option, quite apart from the fact that the legal powers for health policy remain with the member states. Imagine the European Commission issuing a quarantine order in Lombardy or Saxony! Only national leaders have the political authority to persuade their populations to accept infringements of basic rights. This will not change soon. [...]

The second problem is that in a pandemic, it is lack of speed that kills.

In normal times, governing a stable and prosperous Europe is largely a matter of administering the status quo. Legislation and administration work at a leisurely pace. Of course, there have been crises in recent years that required urgent responses. But the 2007-2008 financial crisis was a matter for political leaders and technocrats, and the 2015-2016 migration crisis had few immediate consequences for most people.

A dangerous virus spreading exponentially through the population presents an entirely different challenge. It requires a warlike mobilization with a speed of decisionmaking and administrative action far beyond normal state practice. Several Asian and African countries that had previous experience with MERS, SARS, and Ebola understood that and have coped well with the current pandemic. But despite the repeated warnings of experts, the crisis hit European states unprepared and revealed severe weaknesses in their health systems and public administrations.

Likewise, the EU institutions--specialists in careful and time-consuming consensus building--were overwhelmed by the urgency of this new challenge. By their usual standards, EU officials delivered both an economic response and collective vaccine procurement at great speed, but considering the severity of the situation, it was simply not good enough. Emergencies require risk-taking and radical innovation. Rather than rely on officials, Washington put a general in charge of vaccine procurement, and London a venture capitalist. Considering the results, this might have been the better approach.

Finally, for democracies, trust is key in managing crises, but it is so easy to lose. [...]

As the European public began to lose faith in its leaders, the leaders likewise lost faith in the public's readiness to cooperate. Caught between health experts advising tough restrictions and mounting societal pressure to return to normal life, governments often adopted half-hearted measures that were only partly followed, resulting in yet more infections and more public frustration.

Posted by at April 8, 2021 8:01 AM