The European Union and the Coronavirus Crisis: Not Exactly a Ben Franklin Moment

By Robbin Laird

The United States is experiencing significant stress within its federal system of government, and much uncertainty about what powers need to be exercised in the Coronavirus crisis and by whom.

And if the U.S. federal system which after all has a constitution laying out the sharing of powers, it is hardly surprising that the European Union is facing a significant existential crisis in dealing with the crisis.

The crisis is in effect a core reason a European Union should exist to sort through ways to manage common security challenges.

It has been clear for some time, that there is a growing importance for liberal democracies being much more cognizant of their supply chain dependencies and their need to have a very clear resilience strategy or to pursue what a smart sovereignty approach.

In discussing the impact of the Coronavirus crisis, the Australian strategist, John Blackburn, highlighted the importance of shaping a smart sovereignty and trusted supply chain approach.

“When we redesign our supply chains, we need to pursue a “Smart Sovereignty” model. The scale or degree of sovereign capability you have in a country, will vary significantly country by country…. What must go with smart sovereignty is Trusted Supply Chains. You have to have diverse supply chains, and you have to have assured yourself that you can trust them. What is evident here is the massive outsourcing and dependence upon China as the sole source of pharmaceutical ingredients and other essential supplies, cannot be ‘trusted.’ We’ve seen it fail in the current crisis.”[1]

The European Union certainly has come up short in working a wide ranging collaborative approach to deal with the crisis, but clearly it has the opportunity to reshape its role to encourage the member states to shape a smart sovereignty approach, which is core capability for direct defense in today’s world.

Perhaps in this crisis, the core Europe states will leverage what it has been FORCED to do as the beginning of a policy process to, in fact, deal with this as a key task which the European states both individually and collectively can focus upon.

Certainly, the Finns have led and continue to lead the way in thinking about resilience and crisis management. They have been the one state in Europe which has focused significantly upon resilience in a crisis.

Perhaps one of the smallest states in Europe can be looked to for the intellectual leadership which larger states have abrogated.

But rather than following the dictum of Ben Franklin, that “we all hang together or we all hang separately,” national paths have been followed with significant competition among those states for access to medical supplies and closing national borders to control the movement of goods and persons.

At the end of the day, the reopening phase and the post-crisis management phase raise core questions about the way ahead for Brussels and for the nation states making up the European Union in shaping a way ahead for future crisis management.

And it is clear, that the value of a European Union lies in significant extent in terms of an ability for nations to work together to handle crises and to shape a more effective way ahead for supply chain security and to shape secure infrastructure to protect Europe from the blandishments of the 21st century authoritarian powers.

Rather than pursuing the largely pyritic notion of building a European Army, the current crisis poses the stark need for not an aspiration but realities for a more effective crisis management system and more focus upon a secure supply chain.

The Chinese performance of generating the crisis in the first place, and then leveraging their dominance of medical supplies and shaping a constant flow of information war working to divide and conquer is becoming a transparent need.

Meanwhile, the Russians have sent technicians into Europe to “support” efforts to deal with the crisis. In the Italian case, the Russians even sent members of a biological warfare team into Italy to help, which of course, provides yet another access channel by Russia into Europe to be leveraged as well in any future crisis.

An excellent source into the European Union and its challenges during the crisis is provided by the coverage of the EUObserver, which is based in Brussels and provides analysis, interpretation and opinion pieces, and does not confuse the three functions.

And several conclusions emerge from reading this source about the challenges facing the capability of the European Union to shape a common approach.

The first challenge is the European Union’s legal limitations.

“The European Union has limited powers to tackle the pandemic – because member states oversee health. The European Commission can coordinate and support member states on health. It can make recommendations and give advice. Everyone is free to ignore it.

“That rule is spelled out in article 168 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union. The treaty is the legal foundation and doctrine of the EU. The article says the EU can “complement national policies” and “encourage cooperation”.”[2]

Second, national responses were the core reality, with the different nature of the various systems shaping the responses.

More authoritarian regimes like that in Hungry, took advantage of the crisis to reinforce their control in the country.

States which rely on labor mobility such as Romania to generate revenue from workers abroad, took advantage of openings in states like Germany to move workers back into those states.

The Italians were at the heart of the initial phases of the crisis, and reached out for help from other states and did not receive the help they were hoping for, which lead to anti-EU public reactions. But Italy took significant lockdown measures when facing the crisis.

It was noted by one analyst in March 17, 2020 article that “To date, no Western government had taken such significant measures: a ban on leaving home except for reasons of work, health and emergency; the closure of all schools and universities, theatres, cinemas, museums, bars, discos and restaurants; the closure of all shops except for groceries, pharmacies, banks and kiosks; the freezing of sporting events, masses and even the Serie A (Italian men’s top professional football division).”[3]

Third, it is crucial to accelerate cross learning and the role of the European Union might well be aiding this process rather than trying to mandate the rules.

Yet any cross learning across states primarily came from competing measures rather than working common measures.

But with cross-learning in a crisis like this one, perhaps the major EU states will shape ways to share information more rapidly to sort through common responses, even though interpreted differently through various national lenses. And perhaps the use of video teleconferencing can emerge as a tool to facilitate more timely communication and collaboration in crisis as well.

Fourth, European fragmentation is aided and abetted by the 21st century authoritarians.

The fragmentation seen in the crisis certainly has provided an opportunity for the 21st centaury authoritarians to intervene and to work to shape outcomes favorable to their interests.

As two analysts put it with regard to China:

“EU commissioner Thierry Breton is calling Covid-19 a “crisis that knows no borders,” but as Europeans look out of the windows in their home confinement, borders are all they see.  New restrictions are dividing citizens from each other and real, closed borders are sprouting between European states and between the transatlantic partners.

“These barriers are breaking down the freedoms the European Union is supposed to be all about – the freedom of movement for citizens and goods.  Days-long lines on the Polish-German border are trapping the citizens of the Baltic States in Germany, unable to cross into Poland to get home.  EU export restrictions on healthcare supplies are leaving the EU’s neighborhood, especially the Balkans, feeling abandoned by their closest and richest neighbor.  And in their rhetoric, national leaders, including Angela Merkel in her public address, failed to mention Europe’s common struggle in their visions for battling the virus.

“The only country that is breaking through these new barriers is the People’s Republic of China.

Keen to appear as a leader in a crisis it largely contributed to create, China has launched several initiatives aimed at Europe.”[4]

And the Chinese Ambassador to the European Union highlighted the importance of burying the hatchet and moving hand in hand with the Chinese way ahead:

“We want to join hands to fight and defeat the pandemic.

“The mirror also reflects the global significance of China-EU relations. Both supporting and upholding multilateralism, China and the EU share the belief that, in face of global challenges at a trying time, it is important to rise to the occasion together rather than blame others, pass the buck or adopt beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

“The G20 special summit on Covid-19 is about to be held. China and the EU need to work together to champion and facilitate international solidarity and cooperation in strengthening the weak links and seeking a long term solution to defend global health security.

“When the threat of Covid-19 looms large, trust, especially a high-level of trust between the government and citizens, has underpinned China’s impressive response.

“By the same token, only trust will help free our minds of undue concerns and make international cooperation possible. And only trust and solidarity will give us greater strength to fight and prevail over the pandemic.”[5]

And with regard to active disinformation campaigns, both China and Russia were happy to add to conflict among EU members and between Europeans and Americans.

As Andrew Rettman put it:

“Russia’s top coronavirus fake news stories were about Western plots – a theme also popular in Chinese disinformation….Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao, for instance, retweeted a bogus Russian article entitled “Covid-19: further evidence that the virus originated in the US.: His retweet, on 13 March, was engaged with 45,000 times.

“And the Russian article it referenced back to was eventually shared over 60,000 times on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and linked to by 116 other websites.

“The EU foreign service has more material on Russia than China because it has a special mandate to strike back at “Russian disinformation”.  But it accused both of them of “pollution of the information space” in a recent report.  Russian messages “advance a narrative that coronavirus is a human creation, weaponized by the West,” the internal EU report, seen by EUobserver, said.”[6]

As Jan Techau put it in an article published on April 15, 2020:

“What if European governments become so hard-pressed for money, that moderately sized investments by interested external powers could turn the tide?

“For several years, I have been saying that the moment when Pax Americana actually ends in Europe will be marked by European governments choosing to call Beijing and Moscow first instead of Washington when consulting on foreign policy.  What if corona has hastened that moment to arrive, just because EU governments can no longer afford to resist the siren songs from Moscow and Beijing?

“Already, the EU commissioner for competition, Margarethe Vestager, has warned that China could get on a big corona-induced shopping spree, buying out hundreds of cash-strapped European companies.  The UK’s intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, have urged the government to be more restrictive on Chinese investments and acquisitions of key players in crucial industries.

“At the same time, two German defence analysts have warned that European “bonsai armies” cannot afford to be further pruned and shrunk in the wake of the corona-crisis without notably increasing hard security risks across the continent.

“True, China is not omnipotent, and Russia certainly is not. But in geopolitics, it’s not just about resources, but about how to prioritize their usage in times of scarcity.  China and Russia put a premium on systematically expanding their geopolitical reach and their influence on governments across the globe. Europe is high on their list because it is the crown jewel of Pax Americana and because it is an important market.”[7]

Clearly, the authoritarian powers are working the seams to widen the gaps within the European Union and the West, But this clearly requires, focusing on ways to enhance security collaboration within the European Union as well.

The challenge will be to seize the opportunities opened by the crisis, rather than simply enhancing the conditions which made collaboration so difficult in the first place.

In that sense, the response to the Coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to reshape the European Union in a more realistic way, recognizing national difference and approaches, but finding ways to shape collaboration where possible among the coalitions of the willing within the broader alliance.

There is little hope that a Commission mandate is going to drive realistic paths to enhanced collaboration in crisis conditions.

A good overview of the cross cutting challenges of what the European Union has and has not done in the crisis and its strategic opportunity was provided by Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Luigi Scazzieri in their assessment of shaping the future through crisis management.

“As well as mismanaging its initial response to the outbreak in Italy, the EU also struggled to co-ordinate other member-states’ actions to suppress the pandemic.

“The Union has limited powers in the field of public health. Nevertheless, the EU could conceivably have played a greater role in the initial phase, as it was evidently a matter of time before the virus spread from Asia to Europe.

“Although it has managed to convince member-states to reverse export bans on medical equipment to other member-states, its calls for a coherent EU-wide approach towards internal border management have had little effect. The Commission proposed to ban the entry of third country nationals into the Schengen area for at least 30 days, aiming to encourage member-states to keep their internal borders open.”[8]

The authors underscored what the European actually did do in the first phase of managing the crisis.

“Despite the initial shortcomings in its response, it would be unfair to say that the EU has done nothing to support member-states in their fight against coronavirus. The European Commission has activated some unspent funds to support member-states’ health sectors and businesses in need.

“It has also launched joint procurement projects with member-states for essential medical equipment such as ventilators, masks and testing kits, and made funds from the Horizon 2020 research program available for medical research to develop a vaccine.

“The European Commission has also decided to temporarily relax current EU state aid rules, to help governments to provide businesses with emergency support.”[9]

They then identified a number of opportunities facing the European Union which if met could provide a positive way ahead for reworking how the European Union can better assist in a crisis. These included better coordination of national efforts, coordinating the reopening of borders, shaping a more effective and comprehensive communications strategy, and the need to to reach agreement on the multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027.

They conclude that the crisis provides an opening on reshaping the European Union’s future.

“But the way in which the Union responds to the coronavirus will shape the eurozone’s future, and exert a profound influence on how citizens perceive the Union.

“If the EU fails to rise to the challenge, it will be weakened and lose legitimacy in the eyes of EU citizens. Conversely, if the EU acts robustly and resolutely, co-ordinating member states’ actions and adding value to their efforts to counter the outbreak, it has a chance to emerge from the crisis stronger, and with its image greatly enhanced.”[10]

But as significant as the internal challenges are the 21st century authoritarians are engaged in significant efforts to shape those dynamics of change to their interest.

In short, learning to operate in crisis conditions is a key requirement for any effective alliance such as the European Union or it becomes something like an economic League of Nations.

The featured photo: Communities are mobilizing to deliver medical supplies and groceries to elderly people and other vulnerable groups (Photo: syed zaheer)

[1] Robbin Laird, “Will the Coronavirus Crisis be Wasted?,” Second Line of Defense (March 27, 2020),

[2] Nikolaj Nielsen, “Coronavirus: What the EU Can and Can’t Do,” EUObserver (March 26, 2020),

[3] Valentina Saini, “Coronavirus: Lessons from Italy,” EUObserver (March 17, 2020),

[4] Kristine Berzina and Etienne Soula, “Bejing using lack of EU ‘solidarity’ to seize leadership,” EUObserver (March 24, 2020),

[5] Zhang Ming, “Chinese Ambassador to the EU: Put Trust Before Politics,” EUObserver (March 26, 2020),

[6] Andrew Rettman, “Russia’s Top Coronavirus ‘Fake News Stories’,” EUObserver (March 27, 2020),

[7] Jan Techau, “Saving Europe from Corona’s Nasty Geopolitics,” EUObserver (April 15, 2020),

[8] Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Luigi Scazzieri, “The European Union and the COVID-19 Crisis: Shaping Its Future Through Crisis Management,” The Centre for European Reform (March 23, 2020),

[9] Gostyńska-Jakubowska and  Scazzieri, “The European Union and the COVID-19 Crisis,”

[10] Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Luigi Scazzieri, “The European Union and the COVID-19 Crisis: Shaping Its Future Through Crisis Management,” The Centre for European Reform (March 23, 2020),