By James Meakin
In February 2020, the resort town of Ischgl in the Tyrolean Alps partied. Travellers flocked from all across Europe to ski the snow-covered slopes before drinking in the resort’s high-end bars.
Then, cases of Covid-19 started to appear across Europe. On the 1st March, 15 people tested positive for Covid-19 on a flight from Munich to Reykjavik. 14 of those travellers had been to Ischgl.
Only two weeks after Icelandic authorities found these first cases, linked to Ischgl, 7 EU countries had imposed border restrictions – despite EU Commission recommendations to the contrary. Germany, one nation that acted early in terms of border controls, fared better in the initial wave than other Western European nations. For instance, it suffered only 100 deaths per million compared with 450 per million in France.
The EU eventually re-opened borders for summer holidays. Economies dependent on tourism, such as Spain and Croatia, needed tourists to restart their economies, which had been battered by lockdowns. Cases stayed low throughout much of Europe during summer 2020.
New variants, such as the Alpha variant from Kent and the Beta variant from South Africa, emerged in the autumn and winter of 2020. Border controls within Schengen were back on the agenda. Due to outbreaks of the Alpha variant in February 2021 in Czechia, only German citizens, residents, and essential workers could cross into Germany.
With vaccines on the horizon, however, there was the hope of being able to facilitate travel within the EU. The EU unveiled their ‘Green Pass’, which uses a QR code system to show vaccination, recovery from a Covid-19 infection, or a negative PCR test result in March 2021. Could the Green Pass end the EU’s fragmentation over border policy?
The border control policies of Germany and other Central European countries at the beginning of the pandemic undermined EU solidarity. The ability for workers, families and holidaymakers to travel seamlessly throughout the continent makes the idea of a united Europe attractive to its citizens. This freedom is also one of the ‘Four Freedoms’ of the European Union.
The fact that member states unilaterally suspended this fundamental ideal from spring 2020 posed a threat to EU solidarity. The act of Germany shutting its borders in mid-March 2020 was evidence of this. However, this closing of borders was epidemiologically successful – Germany shielded itself from the worst of the first wave of the pandemic. Open borders were harmful.
Temporary emergency powers are rarely temporary. If Schengen can be suspended by individual countries for epidemiological reasons, there is no reason that it cannot be suspended for others. The inevitable flow of refugees from Afghanistan into Europe in the coming months may turn out to be another test of the power of border controls. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is already talking of taking a hard-line approach towards the entry of Afghan refugees. The pandemic has perhaps set a perfect precedent to allow him to shut Austria’s borders to refugees.
Despite the Green Pass opening up the prospect of summer holidays and business travel across the European Union for citizens of member states, the initial closure of Europe’s internal border may have dented the ideal of open borders for the near future.
Border controls have not been the only test of EU solidarity during the pandemic. Medical supplies, most notably vaccines, have tested the ability of a centralised EU to create nimble supply chains.
At the beginning of the pandemic, individual member states took vaccine procurement into their own hands. France, Germany and the Netherlands created a vaccine alliance which placed an order for 400 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in April 2020.
After this initial fragmentation over vaccine and PPE procurement, the EU Commission took back control in June 2020. They put forward a centralised strategy which aimed for equity across the bloc to prevent wealthy countries, like France and Germany, from hoarding supplies of vaccines at the expense of poorer member states.
By December 2020, the EU’s strategy had come under heavy scrutiny. German government sources briefed the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, on the tribulations of the selection of vaccines. The EU Commission rejected an extra 200 million doses of the 95%-efficacious German-developed Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in favour of the French-developed Sanofi vaccine. This latter vaccine turned out to be a flop in initial clinical trials. EU solidarity was pursued at the cost of vaccine supplies.
Comparisons between the European Union and United Kingdom’s vaccination procurement and delivery strategies were often unflattering for the former. Comparisons were critical, especially initially, because the UK was able to vaccinate its vulnerable population quicker. When the Alpha variant became the dominant variant in Europe this spring the detrimental impact of lower vaccination levels in many European nations showed. Poland suffered a pandemic record average of 603 deaths a day on the 14th April. Even relatively wealthy member states did not have enough vaccines to protect the vulnerable from death and hospitalisation when the Alpha variant hit the continent.
What we see with the EU’s vaccination strategy is a crisis that is fundamentally different in nature to the border crisis. The latter was an issue of EU fragmentation, with each country charting its own course. The vaccine crisis was one of centralisation. To convince citizens that EU solidarity is the way to go, EU solidarity must work to the benefit of the people. The deadly spring 2021 coronavirus surge in Europe demonstrated that EU centralisation was detrimental in delivering vaccines in time to avert deaths and hospitalisations with the onset of the Alpha variant.
Perhaps, though, the EU is fortunate. Despite the spread of the even more transmissible and immune-system evading Delta variant, Europe is partying once again. Fewer people are in hospital and even fewer are dying. This winter, Ischgl’s Après-Ski may once again be full to the brim of inebriated skiers from over the continent. Unlike lower-income parts of the world, the EU’s vaccines did come in time for the Delta surge.
For EU voters, the fact that the EU has achieved protection of the majority of its population via vaccination by summer 2021 may be a vindication of the centralised procurement strategy. As with the UK Government’s arguable errors and miscalculations over lockdown policy, the EU’s fragmentation over pandemic border policy, and the initial lethargy of vaccine delivery, may all become a distant bad dream for Europeans. The Bundestag elections this autumn will be a good barometer to see how voters in one of the EU’s most influential member states will judge pandemic performance. Like society, politics may revert back to normality. Migration and climate change will once again be the issues which decide the future of the European Union. Perhaps the EU institutions and EU member states will use some of their solutions to the pandemic to tune their responses to the crises of the pre-Covid-19 world.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova