Like in any great European crisis, the European Union is playing catch up. Even with months to prepare, Europe has been caught out completely off guard by Covid-19, ending up as the epicenter of the worst global pandemic in generations. But however delayed it may be, European institutions are finally responding with bold proposals that could shape the development of Europe for decades. Time will tell if those policies succeed, but if there is one conclusion to be drawn from the pandemic it is that there can be either one Europe or none at all.

Europe is Under Enormous Stress

At first glance, it may look like the latter. European countries, far from responding as a bloc, have each handled the pandemic on their own. Not only that, but pillars of the European project such as freedom of movement have evaporated just as easily as anywhere else. In a matter of weeks the EU went from an almost borderless bloc to bordered regimes that would have been considered unimaginably strict under normal circumstances. Europe’s failure to mount a speedy and unified response to the pandemic has left the bloc looking like a non-entity with its future once again in question.

Hope on the Horizon?

There is a glimmer of hope for the EU in one aspect of this crisis though. It may seem counterintuitive, but the breaking down of Europe along national lines may be positive sign for Europe’s future. It means that Europe is not at risk of a regionalized fracturing, nor has it truly developed into a so-called multi-speed Europe. Which is to say it is a Europe divided by stages of integration.

The idea of a multi-speed Europe is as old as the EU itself. To a large extent, Europe is integrated to various degrees. There are many treaties which not all members are party to and many institutions which do not apply across the bloc. But politically, a multi-speed Europe would be one where some countries form a more integrated “core Europe” and others an un-integrated, peripheral Europe.

The thinking goes that this allows everyone to get their way. Eurofederalists can proceed with integration while Eurosceptics can sit on the sidelines without having to surrender any of their treasured sovereignty. It is the indecisive middle-ground of a bloc in continuous crisis and continual disagreement over its fundamental tenets. But how does that multi-speed Europe respond to a life or death crisis?

How Does a Divided Europe Respond to Disaster?

In a crisis like the one we are living through now, a divided Europe would inevitably offer a divided response, and at the center would be the European institutions meant to govern over one united Europe.

Let us take an unfortunately relevant analogy. An Italian doctor is being faced with an ever-increasing number of seriously ill coronavirus patients. His resources are limited, and the health of he and his colleagues is worsening by the day. They are being overwhelmed, and he must decide who to treat, knowing those he does not treat may die.

Now imagine his patients are from all over Europe, and those he treats are based not on need but on nationality. This is the system in place, and he has no choice but to treat those from “core Europe” and to leave those from the “periphery” to die. Now imagine our doctor is the European Commission and our patients are member countries of the EU. This would be multi-speed Europe’s reaction to coronavirus.

Europe Cannot Afford Division — Especially Now

It is precisely during crises that the EU is most vulnerable and can afford least to be divided. It is complicated enough for a loose supranational union with 27 members to respond to such a major crisis. Adding further layers down the line would make it even more complicated, and likely even less successful. If Europe is divided in times of peace and calm, crises will only exacerbate these divisions, and before long there may be not be a European Union to speak of at all.

But thankfully for the EU, the pandemic has shown that such clear delineations do not exist. As much as the EU has floundered in its response, no grouping of nations has fared any better. Even the original six members of the EU responded individually, and as of today are in profound disagreement over how to deal with the coming economic crash.

The famous Franco-German axis is nowhere to be seen. No “Nordic model” has emerged for others to aspire to. Even the much talked about Visegrad Group has not mounted anything that could be called a unified response, with its member countries instead being the first to close their national borders to foreign nationals. And the Eurozone — considered the prime example of Europe’s current bifurcated development — has pnly distinguished itself by even more internal disagreement.

As much as Europe bickers, and as indecisive as it is, it is still bickering together. There is no alternate decision-making forum or body that supersedes the European Union. The basis for cooperation — or lack of it — is still pan-European, which is to say, centered on the institutions of the European Union. The EU is not fractured based on regions or large country partnerships, and most importantly it is not dependent on stages of integration. If Europe is to have a future, it will have to be united.