EU unity threatened by pandemic
Toni Waterman from Brussels

EU leaders have signed off on a proposal to all but seal Europe's borders to foreigners for at least the next 30 days. 

The move is a bit delayed for some member states, though, as they have already decided to close their borders despite desperate calls from Brussels for a unified approach.


How big a threat to EU unity has the COVID-19 crisis been so far?

The free movement of people in Europe is one of the four tenets of the single market. 

The guidelines of this new travel ban limit that free movement, saying that member states must always admit their own citizens and residents and facilitate the transit of other EU citizens and residents who are returning home. 

This means we are seeing aspects of this tighten up. Some members have sealed their borders even to other EU citizens. 

Certain countries in the EU have courted the hoarding of essential medical equipment, while others have been in desperate need. Therefore, this pandemic is testing the bonds of unity and solidarity within the bloc.


What has been the criticism of the response at the EU level?

The biggest criticism is that Brussels has been too slow to act to a fast-spreading contagion. This is particularly regarding aid packages, border controls and the procurement of medical equipment. 

Italy, which is currently dealing with about 30,000 confirmed cases, has said that the EU and other member states are leaving Italians high and dry in their moment of crisis.

In defense of the EU, health is a national competency. The early stages of this outbreak were dominated by this concept, which has changed somewhat as the pandemic has worsened. 

Dealing with any type of crisis in a 27-member bloc is normally a slow process, which is exacerbated now that we are in a crisis.


What is the EU now doing to bring in a union-wide policy?

Brussels is trying to regain control. 

The closing of borders would realign member states that have already taken this action. The commission is also allowing governments to ban the export of vital medical equipment outside the bloc. Such regulations are once again trying to bring the likes of Germany and France back into alignment. 

Brussels has also put out framework proposals on issues such as state aid as individual governments are putting forward a patchwork of economic aid packages. 

Therefore, it's currently about realigning right and pushing forward this belief that a coordinated response is most effective. 


Will countries put the EU-wide interest ahead of their national interest?

It could be argued that to some extent we've seen more of the ME than the WE mentality so far. 

Germany and France, for instance, banned the export of much sought after protective gear such as masks and gloves, so that they would not have a shortage at home. They did this, though, as Italy was desperately appealing for help in procuring this type of equipment. 

Germany and France have since loosened those restrictions after a scolding from Brussels. 

As critical as things seem at the moment, they are expected to get worse. So we'll just have to wait and see who and what the ultimate priorities are.