Increasingly European countries are choosing disparate measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic which could have far-reaching political consequences.
The European Union project has rarely faced a crisis that threatens the bloc as seriously it does now. The scale of the human tragedy is significant with more than 63,888 infections from the coronavirus and more than 3,000 deaths, well on its way to surpassing China.
The Serbian-American economist Branko Milanovic called the coronavirus crisis “a huge test of European solidarity”. As different European countries have begun closing borders and hoarding medical equipment Milanovic added: “they have failed”.
When Italy requested assistance from other EU member states to fight the coronavirus not a single one came to its aid, leaving China to come to the rescue.
A new poll in Italy already shows the political impact the coronavirus is having on Italy and their relationship with the EU with 88 percent saying that the “EU is not helping us”. The number of people saying that "EU membership is an advantage" has dropped to just 16 percent.
The way the virus has spread around the world has in part been facilitated by the modern economic system, but in Europe, it is also revealing the resilience of the nation-state model.
“Globalisation has made pandemics more possible and their spread much faster than in the previous historical periods when it usually took years for a virus to move from one continent to another,” says Dr Sinisa Malesevic and author of ‘Grounded Nationalisms’ which challenges the view that nationalism is a declining social force in the 21st Century.
“This pandemic also shows how strong and embedded nation-states and nationalist discourses in the contemporary world are,” adds Malesevic speaking to TRT World.
Germany and France were condemned by other EU member states for blocking the export of vital medical supplies, calling into question the bloc's solidarity in times of crisis.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise suggests Malesevic.
“The responses to the pandemic tend to be much more national than international and each nation-state has responded very differently with a clear focus on preserving one’s own population.”
“It is also interesting to observe how the discourse of national unity and national solidarity has quickly started to dominate in the mass media and social media too," explains Malesevic.
Recent reports that the Trump administration was attempting to poach a German scientist working exclusively on the coronavirus vaccine was another assault on the fabled transatlantic relationship.
The big power rivalry is not just between Germany and the US.
The Balkans, where the EU has spent a great deal of time promising the countries there how important they are, have also been left out in the cold.
The EU’s President Ursula von der Leyen banned the export of medical equipment outside the bloc, a course of action that drew the ire of Serb President Aleksandar Vucic.
"European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People's Republic of China. For the rest of them, thanks for nothing," said Vucic in a press conference.
The former information minister to the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic often understands how to maximise a political opportunity. His comments, however, resonated, and emphasised that bilateral nation-state partnerships are seemingly more important than the EU project.
“This unprecedented situation has posed a unique challenge to the European Union,” says Dr Denijal Jegic, a researcher in Orientalism and the European far-right.
“In an attempt to contain the spreading of the virus, long-abolished national land borders regained significance. Responses to the crises have focused on the nation-state, national governments and national citizenship. Isolation rather than solidarity seems to prevail,” added Jegic speaking to TRT World.
The spread of the coronavirus in the Balkans is not taking the same human toll as it is in the rest of Europe but there is no doubt that with weak institutions and decades of underfunded healthcare, the fallout could be severe.
“As the virus is making its way from central Europe to the Balkans, it is questionable whether the EU is ready or even able to help the region – particularly in light of its insufficient response in Italy, where China had to step in and send medical staff and supplies,” says Jegic.
China has benefitted enormously from the crisis to seemingly frame itself as one of the only states that seems not to have buckled under the crises.
The EU, on the other hand, has been paralysed by the speed of the coronavirus. Normally a body that is known for moving slowly and deliberatively, the EU has found it difficult to remain relevant, allowing nation-states to step in.
“The nation-states are still the only legitimate mode of territorial rule and nationalism remains the most influential ideological discourse in modernity,” says Malesevic. “The nation-states retain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and we can see how quickly they can close the borders, shut the schools, universities, restaurants, ban movement and assembly of people and use military and police to implement radical and draconian measures.”
There are already signs of the speed with which different nations are reshaping their societies.
In the UK, the government announced a ‘Coronavirus Bill’ which is expected to become law by the end of the month, giving it sweeping new powers from how people should be buried, to holding those that threaten national security for longer, closing borders, empowering police and much more.
All these powers may face little scrutiny and could be enforced for the next two years, if passed into law.
In France, similarly, the government has gone on a war footing and brought the military onto the streets to enforce a 15-day curfew.
The coronavirus has shown that the nation-state model is not only far more robust but also in times of crisis has the necessary legitimacy to act in a way that transnational bodies and political blocs like the EU may find hard to do.
The virus could also bolster the narratives of nationalists and the far-right within Europe who have long argued that the nation-state is far more effective in dealing with people’s needs or feeding the suspicions of foreigners.
“As the crisis intensifies and more people die one could expect more visibility of the far-right and demands to treat non-nationals differently,” says Malesevic. “They would also be more likely to blame the refugees or foreign governments for the spread of the coronavirus.”