Will COVID-19 Break the European Union?

(Photo: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau)

In a previous blog, I promised to share my thoughts on the post-pandemic future of Europe, in particular for North American readers who may not be following developments on this side of the Atlantic.

Travel’s off limits for the next several months, so we might as well talk about something.

Here’s what it looks like to me as an outsider, and a long term resident and traveler.

The Maastricht Treaty came into force some 27 years ago, but the European Union has always rested on unsteady ground.

The Union works well when times are good, but those divisions are revealed in times of crisis, and this pandemic is no exception.

The COVID-19 crisis has only served to widen deep North-South and West-East divisions.

The moment the crisis struck, member states started acting unilaterally and to hell with everyone else. They also broke the Schengen agreement by closing their borders unilaterally. When the EU finally stopped bumbling and responded, they advised everyone to do what they had already done, giving their blessing to something they were powerless to prevent.

We saw the same sort of slamming shut during the 2015 migrant crisis: countries unilaterally closing their borders no matter what Brussels said.

Without Schengen, is the EU anything more than just a free trade pact?

But borders weren’t just thrown up to slow or stop the movement of people, and with them the spread of the virus from its initial foothold in northern Italy. They were also erected to hoard resources.

The Italians were shocked when Germany responded to their pleas for help with a ban on the export of personal protective equipment. They felt like they’d been abandoned by Europe. That void was quickly filled by China.

Italy, and aspiring member nations like Serbia, praised China and Russia for sending medical aid in their hour of need. Far from being selfless charity, these were deliberate attempts on the part of the former Communist regimes to use the pandemic to extend their global influence by exploiting divisions within the Union.

They know from experience that a divided Union is a bickering, self-absorbed Union. One so deeply embroiled in its own existential navel gazing that it won’t notice — or won’t be able to counter — the tentacles of influence Putin and Xi have been patiently spreading in what is now a very long game.

More compassionate voices eventually prevailed. The German export ban was lifted, supplies flowed south and critically ill Italian patients were flown north to be treated in German hospitals. But the initial reaction was to slam and lock the doors as each country looked after itself.

Such hard borders aren’t just being reasserted within Europe. I saw reports from home that police were blocking bridges between Ottawa and Quebec to stop ‘unnecessary’ traffic between provinces.

Some US states are also enforcing tests and quarantine for anyone arriving from New York and other hard hit regions of their country. As their federal government tweets frantically from a dysfunctional Trumpian fantasyland, State and local governments are acting unilaterally, with a clear understanding that the national government no longer matters.

The world is retreating into smaller camps. Scientists are cooperating across national boundaries, as they’ve always done. But rather than come together to find a global solution for a truly global problem, the first instinct of nation states was a scramble to throw up walls, retreating into smaller camps where each competes to get more for themselves.

It certainly doesn’t give much hope for the long term future of humanity if this is our fundamental nature. I suspect that, at least in the short term, we’ll see more nationalism and more borders rather than less.

And that’s just the beginning of the problems the European Union is dealing with.

The cracks are beginning to show — again

Bickering over funding is dividing things too, as Germany resists Italian calls for so-called ‘corona bonds’ to bankroll the crisis response. I won’t go into the details. You can look them up. Just know that it rubs salt in an earlier grievance which hasn’t gone away. Germany resisted similar calls for eurobonds during the 2010 financial crisis when the economies of Mediterranean Europe were brought to their knees.

Italy and other southern countries see this as the rich north refusing to help the hard hit south. And Germany and other northern countries see it as frugal, hard-working German pensioners being expected to foot the bill for southern countries which have always lived irresponsibly beyond their means.

And so bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg get bogged down in arguments over details as the death toll mounts, rather than fixing the problem with whatever it takes and worrying about creating new rules later.

Had such measures been in place before the emergency everyone knew was coming — a global pandemic involving yet another respiratory virus which emerges from China — the solution could have been put in gear the moment crisis struck.

The cumbersome need to find consensus among 27 member states even in the midst of crisis is revealing further weaknesses, as politicians argue about which fire extinguishers to buy, who should pay for them, and which company should get the tender, while the room burns down around them.

Italy threatened to abandon the Euro during the last financial crisis in 2010 because austerity measures imposed by the northern member states that bailed them out were limiting what they could spend in times of crisis.

Those limitations do make sense, at least on paper. Out of control spending by one member state causes problems for everyone else. But an inability to agree when fast agreement is needed also reveals a glaring weakness in the EU model. It wouldn’t surprise me if Italy were to leave the Euro as a result.

In the meantime, Europe’s ‘problem governments’ have been quick to take advantage while everyone else is scrambling to save lives.

Hungary’s populist leader, Viktor Orban, seized the moment by giving himself sweeping dictatorial powers last week. Powers with few limits, without parliamentary oversight, that allow him to rule by decree with no expiration date.

The EU has been toothless to reign Orban in, despite growing alarm over the direction his country and Poland were taking. And they’re even more toothless now in the midst of a pandemic.

Populist right wing movements in France, Poland, Italy and Germany are watching the situation carefully, and no doubt plotting actions of their own. I don’t see the AFD making much additional headway here in Germany, given renewed support for Merkel, but it’s the fractures around the edges that worry me.

The excesses of the Far Left have been more of a problem in recent years, but the pendulum may be swinging.

The Spanish flu pandemic (1918 to 1920) that ravaged the globe at the tail end of WWI killed some 50 million people. It’s uncertain whether the resulting instability led directly to the events that followed, but the world on the other side looked like the world we might very well be facing now: an increasingly isolationist United States, and a rise of the Far Right in Europe.

Populists have historically done well in times of severe economic downturn. And leaders like Le Pen (France), Salvini (Italy), Orban (Hungary), and the German AfD will be ready to ride that surge.

The crisis has also benefitted the other problem country on the EU’s southernmost fringes. And that’s a country I understand rather well.

Malta — Kleptocracy on the southern border

COVID-19 was a lucky break for Malta. Not because many people won’t die, but because the global pandemic has put a temporary stop to the walls that were closing in on disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his corrupt inner circle.

The public inquiry into the political assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was temporarily interrupted as everyone went on lockdown.

So was the compilation of evidence against alleged mastermind Yorgen Fenech, the business tycoon at the heart of the murder. The middleman who hired and paid off the hitmen has pinned the entire thing on Fenech, while the businessman tries desperately to trade some sort of amnesty for implicating Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri. However the details play out, it’s clear the Prime Minister’s Office was in it up to its collective neck.

That entire gang of rats was busy turning on each other, trying to save their own skins — and their illicit gains— when COVID-19 struck. None of this has gone away, but it has bought them some time to cover their tracks, both within Malta and without.

Daphne’s brutal murder didn’t just shake Malta to its clearly rotting foundations. The rest of the European Union is now looking at the tiny island nation with a growing sense of disbelief and disgust at the clear, calculated way in which its ruling Labour Party undermined fellow member states for financial gain during the reign of Joseph Muscat, and at the country’s total lack of remorse and unwillingness to change.

Malta continues to steal openly from other member states by facilitating money laundering, acting as a tax haven within the European Union, and selling passports that give instant access to other people’s countries whether those countries like it or not.

The Malta I knew in the beginning wasn’t like this. But the deliberate transformation into a kleptocracy that I witnessed during my years on the island left me with little hope for its future.

Malta will never change fundamentally. The largest percentage of citizens who voted ‘yes’ to EU membership did so because of the money it promised to bring them. And every non-Labour person I know who voted ‘yes’ believed the EU would save them from the excesses of another Labour government, like the violent Mintoff regime of the 1980’s.

Those aspirations succeeded on the funding side. Malta has been a net beneficiary throughout its membership, receiving a steady stream of financial benefits while stubbornly refusing to abide by the European values it signed up for in exchange for those benefits. But it did not save the people from a cheaper, more crass version of Mintoff.

There was nothing to prevent Joseph Muscat from turning his country into a mafia state for his own gain and that of his friends.

The growing sense of awareness in Brussels at just what it means to have a nation built on amoral familism firmly inside the Union is paired with frustration at the lack of any structural mechanism for dealing with it.

The only weapon at their disposal is Article 7, which, even if the resolution to apply it were to pass the European Parliament, would only be used to suspend a country’s voting rights. And that’s all. 

Any action meant to change this situation requires the buy-in of other member states. Why would Malta vote for accountability and an end to a very lucrative free ride? The same can be said — though with different details — with regard to what’s happening in Hungary and Poland. These countries can be expected to block all such Article 7 moves.

There’s also no mechanism for kicking countries out of the group if things go bad. Look how much trouble the UK is having just trying to leave voluntarily.

The idealists who came up with this united Europe never envisioned anyone manipulative enough to sign up and then use their membership cynically for their own gain while giving nothing back. And their naivety may have held the seeds of the Union’s dissolution.

If the EU can’t deal with what’s happening in its smallest member state, then it is doomed to collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy. And it will deserve to.

Was it a dream too naive to come true?

The EU’s muddled response to COVID-19 has made one thing very clear. Brussels can’t be counted on in a crisis.

After living in both Malta and Germany, I can understand why it seems to be going this way.

The notion that the wealthier northern nations of Europe would give their southern brethren a financial leg up, spreading the wealth and aiding development until those countries, too, can contribute was extremely naive. It failed to account for cynical, amoral actors who would see such generosity as a weakness to be exploited.

I’ve seen that naivety at work here in Germany, and I saw that amoral cunning while living in Malta. Both were firmly entrenched.

The fundamental assumptions behind the European Union contained fatal flaws. And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism capable of fixing them.

I’ve always been pro-EU, despite its problems. I think the open borders between countries within Schengen are wonderful — with the caveat that they need to get serious about enforcing their external borders.

The single passport and single currency make business in Europe so much easier, as does ‘freedom of movement’: the ability for citizens to live and work in any other EU country, as long as they can show they’re able to support themselves without being dependent on the system.

I meet so many people from all parts of Europe who came to Berlin or to Malta to work and experience life in a new culture. It really makes the entire continent feel like my own backyard.

Sure, Europe is still over-regulated and far too bureaucratic, and that makes business here stagnant and slow compared to North America. Germany is especially cumbersome in that regard. But these are problems that can be solved.

But there’s also an unpleasant reality to deal with: countries like Malta, which have been deliberate parasites on the Union rather than contributors. That needs to be recognized and acted on.

I think in the end, the best case might be a smaller European Union.

I can see the EU fracturing, and then shrinking down to a strongly unified block made up of those northern countries with a shared set of values, and a shared commitment to deeper economic and political integration.

The EU as we know it now — with open internal borders, and freedom of movement for work — would persist in that smaller zone, and the rest would devolve into a continent-wide trade agreement.

That’s my best guess after a decade of living here. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

The future of the European Union is a troubled one. And the COVID-19 crisis could be the hammer that finally shatters it.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Ryan, what changes do you see ie Britain & Europe if Boris Johnson succumbs to the virus? It seemed he & his party have a slim popularity. I enjoy your thoughts as one who has seen the “world”.

    • Hi Clark,

      I don’t follow UK politics in any detail, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. But given the strength of British institutions, I would expect the next in line to take over pretty seamlessly. They just had an election, which was won with a landslide majority (I believe the strongest Conservative majority since the late 1980’s).

  • It’s not just Brussels which can’t be counted on in a crisis……if there’s one thing this pandemic has revealed, it’s just how utterly leaderless we are. In most countries

    • Agreed, there’s been a lot of denial and evasiveness. I think nation states have handled things better than a multinational conglomeration like the EU that relies on consensus among too many parts, each with their own agenda. A nation state can move faster and mobilize resources while EU leaders bog down in bickering. But there have also been stark differences among leaders. Merkel’s doing a very good job here. Justin Trudeau has been his usual shifty self, but Ontario premier Doug Ford seems to have risen to the challenge (even those of us who dislike his politics are in agreement there). And the US has been absolutely hopeless on a federal level. The liabilities of their liar-in-chief and his paranoid persecution fantasies quickly became apparent.


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