If ever there was a time for the EU to show the benefit of belonging to an economic bloc with coherent cross-border cooperation you would think it would be now. But that is not quite how things are working out. On the contrary, the EU has erupted into open warfare between north and south. The rifts caused by the 2008/09 financial crisis have been torn open again, with Italy and Spain desperately pleading for help from a reluctant Germany and other northern countries.
If anyone thought harmony would reign once troublesome Britain was out of the EU, there was not much evidence of it at a virtual summit held last week to discuss the coronavirus crisis. Italy and Spain pleaded for an EU ‘Marshall Plan’ to lift their already flagging economies, which have never fully recovered from the sovereign debt crisis which followed the last recession. But they were rebuffed by Germany and the Netherlands. They also asked for ‘coronabonds’ to fund the recovery from the crisis, only for that to be dismissed, too. Angela Merkel insisted that Italy and Spain, both deeply damaged from three weeks’ lockdown, apply instead to the European Stability Mechanism, which southern countries blame for the depth of Greece’s problems ten years ago. ‘If what you’re waiting for is coronabonds, they’re never going to arrive,’ she reportedly told the Italians and Spanish. Ouch!
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was especially upset, refusing to sign the joint declaration reportedly with the words: ‘I cannot accept this vague language or this talk about several weeks, when my country is in the grip of a health emergency. We have asked for a common unemployment insurance and you’re not giving it to me.’ Addressing his citizens the next day he caused surprise by telling them the EU had been too little and too late with help after the 2008/09 crisis – and that it ‘must not fail’ this time.
Unlike Britain, Spain and Italy cannot quantitatively-ease their way out of this crisis because, as members of the Euro, the control of their money supply is in the hands of the European Central Bank. It’s President, Christine Lagarde, at one point seemed to dismiss the idea that this crisis had anything to do with her or her bank.
Three weeks ago Guy Verhofstadt scorned Donald Trump for imposing a ban on flights from the Schengen area, which covers most of the EU, saying it had been imposed unnecessarily and without discussion with the EU. He failed to notice that at the same time many EU states were imposing unilateral Schengen-busting travel bans of their own.
Many have been caught out by the Covid-19 crisis, but no institution has been left looking quite so helpless as the EU. One feels it is sorely missing a common enemy – ie Britain – to help keep it together.