Brussels had hoped to show a ‘united front’ against the growing coronavirus crisis but, with panic setting in, top EU leaders are already scolding their unruly neighbors as responses vary wildly across the 27-member bloc.
In a statement on Thursday, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lashed out at the Donald Trump administration’s sudden decision to ban travel to the US from Europe, with the exception of the UK and Ireland.
Yet, closer to home, some EU nations have implemented similar widespread restrictions in the past 24 hours – much to the disappointment of the union’s top dogs.
Austria was the first, on Tuesday, to break with the principle of ‘free movement’ and announce restrictions on travel from Italy, prompting others to follow suit. Slovakian PM Peter Pellegrini said on Thursday that all international travel to and from that country would be stopped and stringent border checks would be implemented.
Similarly, Czech PM Andrej Babis shut his country’s borders to travelers from Austria and Germany, as well as foreign travelers from other high-risk countries – including the UK. Slovenia has also closed its border with neighboring Italy.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who is never one to shy away from preaching to other countries, wasted no time in telling those closing their borders with Italy that they were making “bad decisions.”
Meanwhile, France is one of the worst hit countries in Europe and Macron is expected to announce that it will move into the highest ‘Phase 3’ response level on Thursday. In a show of “confidence” on Tuesday, the president strolled the Champs Elysees, telling passersby: “I’m shaking hands using my heart.”
On Thursday, Macron used his televised address to remind the nation of “European freedoms” that need to be defended as he insisted the borders can’t be shut and the virus “has no passport” anyway.
Angela Merkel has also expressed characteristic unease with the idea of closing European borders. At a press conference on Wednesday, Merkel said border closures are “not appropriate” and that it makes more sense for people arriving from hard hit areas to simply quarantine themselves instead of stopping flights.
The same spirit of unity and solidarity was notably absent last week, however, when France and Germany, among others, refused to lift controls on the export of protective medical gear to avoid facing shortages at home – even after a desperate request to do so from Italy.
The refusal was criticized by EU crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic, who said the ban risks “undermining” the bloc’s “collective approach” to handling the crisis.
Freed from the constraints of any collective decision-making, post-Brexit UK has still been criticized for what some have regarded as a slow response to the pandemic. A former public health chief, Professor John Ashton, slammed the government’s “complacent” response, saying it “wasted a month” before getting serious.
On Thursday, PM Boris Johnson said the country was facing the “worst public health crisis for a generation” but unlike many countries across Europe, he said schools and universities in Britain will remain open for the foreseeable future.
In contrast, Ireland has said all schools and universities will be closed from Friday onwards. The mis-matching restrictions have already sparked confusion and complaints over lack of coordination, as schools in the north of Ireland will remain open while schools in the south close.
With the hodge-podge of differing measures now in place across the continent, any attempt by Europe to coordinate its Covid-19 response seems to have gone well and truly out the window.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.