EU misses another chance to lead

EU misses another chance to lead as countries take different paths to lifting lockdowns

Damian Wilson

Just when 500m anxious Europeans could use some coordinated leadership over easing the restrictions over coronavirus, what do they get from Brussels? Silence.

As the lockdown continues to take its toll on the mental well-being of millions of people around the globe, and social isolation is made even more difficult by glorious spring sunshine across Europe, we all want to know one thing: when will this nightmare end?

And more importantly, who will decide everyone will be safe to get back to something like normal?

Because from here, it’s clear that no one person or institution is in a position to tell us. Not the World Health Organisation, not the Chinese authorities, our various national governments, and particularly not Boris Johnson.

So, as has been the case since the Covid-19 outbreak, every country is left to go it alone, and that is especially true in Europe, and this is not helping things at all.  From the outset, that has meant national governments making unilateral decisions on such things as border closures, airline flight cancellation and export restrictions on locally-produced medical and protection equipment. It has all been a bit unseemly, to be fair. Everyone for themselves. One outstanding feature of the pandemic has been the lack of cohesion from that gloriously intentioned supranational institution, the European Union. Its efforts in taking a lead role in dealing with Covid-19 remain enormously disappointing. Having positioned itself over five decades to be the go-to body for pan-European problems, you would have thought that Brussels would have devised a fiendishly complex and effective strategy to deal with the outbreak of yet another Continental war, even though this time the enemy is invisible. And as they apparently haven’t done that, what on earth have they been doing? Because one of the often-celebrated missions of the EU has been to provide an umbrella for everyone to gather beneath as one big happy Euro-family. Friends together. Ever closer union.

The perils of getting too close are now causing nightmare conditions in hospitals from Athens to Amsterdam, as coronavirus victims in their thousands succumb to this killer disease. The lockdowns have been harsh, but they have also been inconsistent in the timing of their implementation; rolling rather than co-ordinated. Northern Italy is not only weeks ahead of western European nations in its recognition and treatment of the viral outbreak, it’s also ahead of Southern Italy. And while the draconian lockdown restrictions on the incredibly sociable Italian people have taken a huge toll, with even the balcony singers finally tiring of putting on a brave face, authorities there are still not ready to relax the shutdown.

Meanwhile, just to the north, Austria is talking about “resurrecting” stores after Easter, Denmark is thinking of re-opening schools and workplaces, and over to the west, Spain is discussing reviving La Liga just a couple of weeks later. In the UK, the sunshine has people believing things are improving, when they’re clearly not. The number of deaths recorded yesterday reached its deadliest tally yet of 854, the Prime Minister is in intensive care and we have only just finished week two of lockdown. Wuhan, the Chinese city where this all started, was completely shuttered for eight weeks and is only now beginning to loosen, not abandon, its harsh restrictions on movement. But again, there is no one pointing this out, or acknowledging the different timelines in play across Europe, when that is exactly what is needed.

Without that coordination, some doctors fear there could be a new surge in infections as one country lifts restrictions, and others stay locked-down. People will continue to become anxious, bored, rebellious and falsely optimistic when none of these will help win this battle. Sure, the EU has unlocked some financial aid which might be of assistance to struggling economies, but it’s not really what the 500 million people of the bloc are looking for. They want reassurance, guidance on direction of travel in dealing with the killer on their doorstep and hope that this will eventually be over. Whether that’s next week, next month or next year, they just need to hear.

Brussels is perfectly placed to fill that role, but at the moment there’s only one thing we have in abundance from the ‘Capital of Europe.’ Silence.

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