Will European Unity Fall Victim to Coronavirus?

Will European Unity Fall Victim to Coronavirus?

By Sergio Matalucci

A man wearing a protective mask passes by the Coliseum in Rome.


Support for the EU is crashing in Italy as the West's reluctance to help contrasts with help from China, Cuba and Venezuela.

By Sergio Matalucci

Dora Falace is spending her coronavirus quarantine time bingeing on digital content. That’s all the 71-year-old pensioner can do. When she goes down the stairs for grocery shopping, she hears neighbors closing their front doors. “We avoid each other. We just share content online and sing together as if we were in jails. We are the people of the internet,” she says, laughing nervously. And she’s nervous, all right. “The worst is that you die alone and your family is not with you at your burial.”

That’s a loneliness biting not just at Italians like Falace — but also at their country, traditionally an integral part of the West that’s increasingly upset about being left to fend for itself by the developed world amid a crisis unlike any it has seen in decades. Italy has now recorded more coronavirus deaths — 4,825 — than even China (3,255) and is home to the second largest number of total reported cases after the world’s most populous nation, where the virus emerged late last year.

The sentiment [against the West] is extremely negative.

Simone Tagliapietra, Bruegel think tank

Rome has been requesting medical support for the past few weeks. But the quickest response has come not from fellow European nations or the U.S., but from China and Cuba, which were the first two countries to heed Italy’s call. Over the last two weeks, China has sent medical experts and equipment such as mechanical ventilators to Italy. It’s also sending doctors — as is Cuba. Lombardy, the worst-affected region in Italy, is speaking with Venezuelan doctors, seeking their help.

Meanwhile, the U.S. announced aid for Italy only belatedly — and has barely communicated its assistance publicly. European countries have been even less collaborative. Earlier this month, France and Germany blocked the export of medical equipment to Italy, reversing the decision only under coordinated pressure from the Italian government, European Commission and European Parliament.

Italy Set to Tighten Its Lockdown as Fatalities Top China

Tents being constructed to form a field hospital, run by non-governmental organisation Samaritans Purse, stand in a parking lot in Cremona, Italy.

Source Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg via Getty

That seeming reluctance on the part of EU countries to help a fellow Western nation, contrasted with the response of China and even poorer Cuba, is sparking resentment in an Italian population desperate for support as they try to survive the pandemic. A March 13 poll showed that 88 percent of Italians thought that the EU was of no help in the crisis. Italians who believe they benefit from being a part of the EU dropped from 37 percent in November 2018 to 21 percent this month. Just last Thursday, members of the anti-EU Facebook page StopEuropa grew 20 percent to 660,000 within 24 hours.

“The sentiment is extremely negative,” says Simone Tagliapietra, research fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank. “What’s missing now is support in the field. Medical support from European countries would demonstrate solidarity.”

That anger can be reversed, says Tagliapietra, also a lecturer at the Catholic University of Milan. But EU countries and institutions will need to demonstrate a nimbleness they haven’t shown so far. “It is important to act fast at several levels, as populist movements are strong, not only in Italy,” he says.

It isn’t just a populist sentiment, though. Many Italian doctors at the frontline of the fight against the virus share that angst against their fellow European nations. “Germany, France and Spain initially thought that Italy was exaggerating with all those restrictions,” an ER doctor working in southern Italy tells OZY. “The arrival of Chinese colleagues in Italy is a great help. They are the only ones who can provide specific expertise.”

The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, tested positive on March 10 and has been in mandatory quarantine at home since then. Initially scared, he rejoiced when his family tested negative: “We are all well.” He feels guilty, however, for not contributing. “I am very sorry for my colleagues,” he says. A second doctor working in a hospital in Lombardy echoes the doctor who has tested positive. “I am glad that the Chinese doctors are arriving,” that doctor says. “The EU is acting slowly, as if the emergency was not a common problem. It affects everybody.” At least 18 doctors have died recently from the coronavirus in Italy.

Comments from senior European leaders haven’t always helped. Earlier this month, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde suggested it wasn’t the ECB’s responsibility to “close the spread” — the gap — in bond yields between German and Italian markets.

She later apologized, and the ECB has set aside €750 billion to treat the pandemic as an economic emergency. Separately, the European Investment Bank is trying to mobilize up to €40 billion. The E.U. has now confirmed €853 million just for Italy, and the European Commission is now mulling a series of steps to help member states deal with the crisis.

But the delayed help means that an anti-EU sentiment common among some Italian populist parties is spreading to the mainstream. “I cannot stand the comments made by … Lagarde,” says Marco Adriano, a Bergamo-based manager at an international telecommunications company. Obituaries covered 22 percent of the pages in local newspaper L’Eco di Bergamo on Thursday.

As is, Italy’s relationship with the rest of Europe has been no honeymoon in recent years. Tensions have risen with France over other crises such as the ongoing civil war in Libya. On the other hand, ties between China and Italy have steadily intensified — Italy became the first G7 nation to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. On Thursday, boxes with equipment, including a million face masks, arrived from China, donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation. The Chinese government has also sent two planes full of doctors and life-saving equipment. “This kind of message easily resonates with the public,” says Adriano.

Public health consultant Cinzia Rizzioli says it’s important to recognize that the EU is not responsible for Italy’s health policies. But she adds, “France and Germany were not cooperative when Italy needed help, and the Italian government didn’t understand the severity of the crisis at first. Now things are changing.”

But it won’t be easy to undo recent bitterness. Medical student Diletta Paola Iovino recalls how some foreign commentators had initially mocked Italy’s decision to enforce a nationwide lockdown as a case of Italians wanting to treat themselves to a siesta. “Now that other countries are replicating the Italian plan, I really hope that Europe will wake up,” she says from her apartment in Naples.

Unless the EU comes up with a coordinated response to the crisis now, things could get worse, says Bocconi University professor Carlo Altomonte. “Rerunning the old movie of individual member states left exposed to market pressures and then ‘saved’ through austerity measures is going to disintegrate the Euro area this time,” he cautions.