Transatlantic Take 360: Responses to COVID-19
President Donald Trump shocked Europe and markets on March 12 when he announced a 30-day ban on travel into the United States from Europe’s border-free-travel Schengen countries. Following his prime-time address to the nation in which he announced this and other government measure to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Wall Street suffered its biggest one-day collapse since the market crash of 1987, while Americans in Europe initially rushed to airports worried they would not be able to return home. The administration has since clarified the outlines of the policy, settling markets a bit and reassuring Americans abroad—but a general EU travel ban remains in place.
The slow pace of testing in the United States—23 per million in comparison to Italy’s 826 per million—and the administration’s underplaying of the threat are transatlantic outliers However, while Trump’s anti-EU containment response to the “foreign virus” is a particularly stark case, across the board the responses to the global pandemic of COVID-19 in Europe and the United States have been disparate and national, with little coordination or cooperation even among EU states, though this has started to change.
Below GMF experts give a picture of the EU’s response, the situation in five European countries, and the political responses thus far.
Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director
The European Union recognizes COVID-19 as a global crisis and has called for international cooperation to beat the virus instead of relying solely on unilateral action. The European Commission activated the ARGUS Crisis Coordination Mechanism and pledged €232 million in funding to tackle the outbreak. ARGUS also enables Commissioner Janez Lenarčič to take up his role as the EU Emergency Response Coordinator and to synchronize the efforts of member states in the field of medical relief, vaccine research, and support to the economy and industry.
But COVID-19 presents a severe trial for EU solidarity. Still today, member states seem to prefer to deal with their public-health response in their own ways. And Italy, the one most affected by the pandemic, on March 11 accused the bloc of being slow in coming to its aid, after member states including France and Germany limited the exports of protective medical equipment. Any hope that COVID-19 would trigger the integration of European health systems is looking dim.
Moreover, on March 12, the EU strongly expressed its disapproval of the unilateral U.S. decision to impose a travel ban on Europe without prior consultation. There is little understanding in Brussels for a ban, which applies to travelers from countries belonging to the Schengen border-free-travel area – but not to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and other non-Schengen European states. This major escalation by the Trump administration, unfortunately, sets another test for an already strained transatlantic relationship.
Bruno Lété, senior fellow, Security and Defense program, Brussels
According to the World Health Organization, as of March 13, 06:00 CET, Belgium had 314 confirmed cases and no deaths.
As of March 12, Belgium has entered a “federal phase” of crisis management. This means that the federal government can make orders applying to the whole Belgian territory, in areas that would normally be a regional or local competence, such as education or events. “As before, developments will continue to be assessed on a day-to-day basis,” the federal government says.
Initially, the country’s decentralized structure required the federal government to find a common approach with the regions and the cities. Dutch-speaking Flanders is dominated by the nationalist New Flemish Alliance Party (N-VA), while French-speaking Wallonia is ruled by the francophone socialist party. Brussels, Belgium’s other federal region handed the greens a majority. In addition, there is currently only a federal caretaker government since May 2019 and it was not in the position to initiate major initiatives.
Given its limited competency, it could only issue non-binding guidelines such as encouraging employers to let their staff work from home and cancelling indoor events for over 1,000 people. Although several governors and mayors endorsed these federal guidelines, Flanders’ Minister President Jan Jambon and Antwerp Mayor Bart de Wever, both from the N-VA, said they would not cancel large events based on these guidelines. They demanded objective analysis and enacting the national emergency plan. A call for national unity has been slow to work given the deep-seated linguistic and cultural divides. Unfortunately, in Belgium, the actions around preventing the coronavirus from spreading have also become a political football.
Corinna Horst, deputy director and senior fellow, GMF Brussels.
According to the World Health Organization, as of March 13, 06:00 CET, France had 2,860 confirmed cases and 61 deaths.
France is one of the most affected countries in Europe. The curve of COVID-19 in the population indicates that the country follows the same evolution as Italy, only with a week’s delay. Schools and universities will be closed from March 16 until further notice, and events of over 100 people have been cancelled.
President Emmanuel Macron gave a formal speech on March 12 aimed at providing a balanced response to the crisis. He confirmed the holding of the local elections on March 15 and March 22, as requested by the different political parties, and committed to do “whatever it takes” to alleviate the economic costs of the virus. This means that the state will compensate for partial unemployment and provide financial help via tax measures for small businesses.
Macron also insisted on the need for a European coordinated response. The government’s communication, however, has remained generally silent about the situation in Italy, and has been criticized for showing little compassion. The recent announcement of a French-Italian common purchasing procedure for ventilators and equipment for breathing assistance has been a first concrete showcase of solidarity.
Finally, Macron also conveyed messages to France’s allies. As the virus “does not have a passport”, Macron announced that he would talk to President Donald Trump on March 13 to discuss possible international cooperation initiative among G7 member states. He also insisted on the need to address the financial and economic implications of the crisis, regardless of the costs for national budgets. In addition to this veiled allusion to Germany’s position, he also declared that the decisions of the European Central Bank were necessary but not sufficient.
Martin Quencez, deputy director, Paris office and research fellow, Security and Defense program
According to the World Health Organization, as of March 13, 06:00 CET, Germany had 2,369 confirmed cases and 6 deaths.
Union Berlin—known as the “Iron Ones”—at first resisted turning away soccer fans from the game against mighty Bayern Munich this weekend. But in the end it will follow recommendations from Health Minister Jens Spahn and will play without spectators. The suspension of games in the Bundesliga, on top of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press conference on March 11, has made COVID-19 a reality for Germans this week.
The crisis-tested Merkel was one of the first world leaders to give a sober assessment about the path of the virus to jolt Germans and the international out of a false sense of immunity, outlining in her matter-of-fact manner a potential scenario in which two-thirds of the population could get infected. She urged a collective effort to win time against the pace of the virus so that healthcare resources will not be stretched. She also made clear that Germany would not stand in the way of EU financing for stricken areas, and that flexibility is called for—understanding that Italy might apply this funding toward its healthcare system.
Quarantine measures and school closures are already in effect in parts of the country and Lufthansa has cancelled over 20,000 flights. President Donald Trump’s decision to restrict Europeans from traveling to the United States will not help Germany’s export-driven economy. But many Germans would rather be home anyway than across the Atlantic in the midst of a pandemic. Not only has their government given periodic updates about the virus with a team of scientific experts on hand, but they know that their fellow citizens have no qualms about costs associated with tests and treatment and about taking sick leave to prevent the spread of the virus.
Sudha David-Wilp, senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director, Berlin office
According to the World Health Organization, as of March 13, 06:00 CET, Italy had 15,113 confirmed cases and 1,016 deaths.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced nationwide emergency measures on March 9. The previous day, Italy tightened the grip even more. Citizens can now only leave their house to buy food or medicine, and only one person per household may leave for this purpose. Anybody who leaves home must carry an official self-declaration document. The government has asked all workers to engage in smart working, wherever possible, and has asked employers to facilitate leave or holiday time. All non-essential production, business and commercial activity has ceased. The new decree is being supported by widespread social media campaigns to the tune of #iorestoacasa (I am staying home). In the past weeks, when politicians were still in denial, some doctors argued that it would be better to implement containment and emergency measures earlier rather than later to spare healthcare and avoid panic.
Lesson learned. If there is one thing that is comforting for Italians, is that of having been the first ones in Europe to understand what was going on and act on it. However, while the World Health Organization director for Europe has expressed appreciation of Italy’s leadership, the impressions of the Italian response in Europe seems sceptical at best, edging toward derogatory. In Germany, many still see Italy’s reaction as exaggerated or even a consequence of its dysfunctionality. Italians still hope appropriate measures will be taken, in coordination with the European Central Bank, to ease the economic impact, but the Milan stock exchange is falling sharply and some already talk about the imminent economic war that will ensue as EU members compete for resources as the crisis slowly envelops the continent.
It would make a lot of sense to coordinate more at the European level. To what degree this will happen is yet to be determined. Before everything shuts down, this is one last chance for credibility for the European project.
Isotta Ricci Bitti, program coordinator, Europe program, and Chiara Rosselli, senior program officer and head of the Open European Dialogue
According to the World Health Organization, as of March 13, 06:00 CET, Turkey had one confirmed cases and no deaths.
However, Turkey is not among the countries that conduct vigorous testing and it is likely that there are several undetected cases. The minister of health had said before the first case was announced that it is very likely that there are undetected cases. Turkey has taken a gradual approach to taking precautions against the pandemic.
The first precautions aimed at preventing the virus from coming to Turkey, including thermal cameras at airports; cancelling flights to Italy, South Korea, and Iraq; and closing the border with Iran and Iraq. During this stage the government was heavily criticized for being too complacent. After cases were detected, measures were widened to include closing of schools and universities, and cancelling social events. The government has asked all citizens to refrain from traveling abroad unless necessary and all citizens traveling abroad to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Washing hands frequently is a common practice in Turkey, and Turks are obsessed with keeping their homes clean. It also has a strong public healthcare system compared to many other countries. However, there is still a sense of complacency in the public and individual precautions such as social distancing are still rare and often mocked.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Ankara office director
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.