Virus Fears, Migrant Threats Leave EU Leaders on Shaky Ground

A few days before becoming the European Commission’s first woman president, Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc should “not be afraid to speak the language of confidence and assertiveness.”

Three months on, and with problems swirling around her, it’s doing anything but. One veteran insider in Brussels described the sense of paralysis at the heart of European decision-making as the worst he’d known in decades.

Europe is used to dealing with trouble on its doorstep, but the spread of the coronavirus, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north and many countries in between, is highlighting the fragility of its political foundations.

For a union of 27 governments that boast of their ability to work together, the current plight is exposing an old temptation to look after their own and squabble over responsibilities rather than coordinate a joint response.

Germany, for example, has banned the export of face masks and gloves while France requisitioned its own stocks. That didn’t go down well in Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak, where Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said he’s furious about “discrimination against Italy and Italians.”

The health emergency has struck the EU at a particularly sensitive time: the U.K.’s decision to break away after 47 years was already raising questions about the bloc’s cohesion, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority is fading fast, and populists are on the rise in many countries. And it’s overlapping with another challenge.

Last week, migrants and refugees in Turkey began heading toward Greece, stirring memories of 2015. It was a similar though far bigger crisis that year led to a surge in right-wing populist support across the continent as countries fell out over burden-sharing. It also ultimately weakened Merkel’s standing in Germany after she opened her country’s borders to 1 million refugees.

After being bitten before, Europe is shyer this time. Rather than sticking to its principles and opening the doors, the EU is fortifying its borders, and in doing so, it’s appeared defensive.

Greece was quick to invoke an emergency clause of European treaties, and refused to honor its obligations to asylum seekers, sparking protest from the United Nations’ refugee agency. Even so, EU officials who visited the border area on Tuesday, including von der Leyen, gave the move their tacit approval. They also pledged Greece 700 million euros ($790 million) to help keep migrants away.

Failing to Fix It

That the bloc’s in this position comes down to a failure to fix its broken migration system following the fallout from 2015, just like it hasn’t managed to complete a banking union despite the existential threat brought on by the sovereign debt crisis.

What links Europe’s two current predicaments is the sense of inaction. In the past, the EU always seemed to know where it was headed, but diplomats and EU officials say this time round, they’re not so sure.

One of the bloc’s sacred cows has even come under the spotlight more than at any other time since the 2015 migration crisis: the passport-free travel area.

As experts and other governments criticized leaders in Rome for failing to mount a coherent response to the spread of the virus, the EU rejected Italy’s request for the bloc’s civil protection mechanism to provide extra face masks for its citizens. Opposition Leader and Former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini spotted an opening.

He criticized France and Germany’s decision to halt all exports of protective gear, attacked Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for not defending the borders — and he called for the suspension of the Schengen agreement that allows travel without papers across most of the bloc.

While the EU refused to countenance such a reaction, officials in Brussels say privately that the pressure is unlikely to go away.

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