Italy is the epicentre of a European crisis, for the third time in the space of ten years. Although ECB interventions stabilised the bond market at the height of the Eurozone crisis, Rome was left to cope with the economic fall-out and later the migration crisis largely on its own. These prolonged crises and the lack of an appropriate response from the Union have turned Italy – a founding member and once very pro-European – into one of the most EU-sceptical members. Opinion polls show the far-right populists, EU-critical coalition under former interior minister Matteo Salvini dominating the political landscape, while the moderate coalition currently governing in Rome trails.
In the corona crisis Italy is again by far the hardest hit in Europe, with confirmed cases and deaths continuing to rise. In the economic powerhouse of northern Italy, which was affected first, healthcare provision is among the best in the OECD. Nevertheless, medical facilities there are stretched beyond their limits. Shortages of protective clothing, lung ventilators and intensive care beds force doctors to decide who to treat first – or at all. The drastic decision to lock-down the entire country represents an unprecedented intervention in established civil liberties and will heavily curtail social and economic life for all Italians.
The response to the corona crisis will also represent a stress-test for the European Union’s cohesion. Both of the more or less existential crises of the past decade were triggered at least partly by external events. The European debt crisis grew out of a financial crisis that originally began in the United States. The challenge of dealing with large numbers of refugees in 2015/16 was a product of the Syrian civil war and the permanent state of insecurity in Afghanistan. In both cases external shocks encountered half-finished European integration projects, where the European Union and its member states were not too slow finding collective answers to collective challenges.
Now the European Union again finds itself facing a stress-test. As a “community of solidarity” its legitimacy rests to some extent on its member states supporting one another in emergencies. According to Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to the EU, Italy asked its fellow member states for assistance but has received none so far. Instead China stepped in to help. In the meantime the virus has spread to all the EU’s member states, each of which sees a potential need for its own capacities (unlike in a local event such as an earthquake). But if each member state only looks after its own, the EU will lose more than just a piece of its raison d’être. It will also be failing to place the limited resources at the disposal of those who need them most.
EU mechanisms for solidarity and disaster response already exist. The European Union now needs to put them into practice quickly and creatively. The solidarity clause (Art. 222, TFEU) gives the EU a legal basis for decision-making in this situation. It calls on the Union to mobilise “all the instruments at its disposal” to assist a member state affected by a natural or man-made disaster. This enables it to review the full spectrum of available instruments and select those of use in the affected EU states. This allows it to organise meaningful support – but only if the member states make the urgently needed material aid available. Here the willingness to show solidarity is decisive.
The virus task force set up by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and all the member states must also seek other possibilities for pragmatic and creative solidarity. Businesses identified as operators of relevant capacities in the EU’s critical infrastructure protection initiatives – which includes medical care – should also be involved. As such they play a role not only as recipients of urgent economic aid, but also as supporters in crisis. The EU could for example coordinate additional production of protective clothing and ensure that it is distributed where it is most needed – today in Italy, tomorrow in France, then in Germany. That would be a sensible political signal, unlike the export bans imposed by France and Germany. The latter is understandable in the context of national concerns, but undermines EU-wide solidarity and is in the end less effective than fighting the pandemic collectively.
Alongside primarily health-relevant assistance, economic responses are also urgently needed to cushion the blow for Italy and the rest of the European Union after the peak of the epidemic has hopefully passed. Even before the corona outbreak the Italian economy was on the verge of recession. Soon the crisis will have very harsh repercussions for Italy’s public finances, the banking sector and the real economy. Strong measures are required before investors start speculating in the Italian sovereign debt market. There is no room for ambiguity in the signals that the ECB sends out and Christine Lagarde must learn this quickly.
What is important at this juncture is to send a comprehensive message to Italy that the Union is not abandoning it, neither in the medical battle with the virus nor with the economic and social consequences. The institutions of the EU – European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism and the Commission – as well as Germany and France as the Union’s largest economies should make it clear that Italy and all other affected EU states can count on comprehensive material and financial assistance. The later that message is sent the higher the costs could ultimately be – human, economic and for the EU’s legitimacy.
An Agenda for the German Council Presidency
Why the Containment of Infectious Diseases Alone Is Not Enough