UE Ursula (La Presse)

The Problems with the EU’s COVID-19 Lockdown Exit Strategy

The coronavirus has taken many governments by surprise and nowhere is that more apparent than in the EU. Brussels’ response to the pandemic has been both chaotic and uncoordinated. This has resulted in the bloc’s 27 member states initiating a request to the European Commission (EC) on March 26 which request that the EU’s executive should draft guidelines that all member states should follow.

The guidelines have been unveiled by EC President Ursula von der Leyen, who warned that a failure to coordinate could eradicate the progress made from the tough measures that have been in place over the past month.

How will the EU determine whether a lockdown can be ended?

Von der Leyen said individual governments must address three crucial questions when assessing whether to end a lockdown:

  • Is the pandemic fading?
  • Are there enough hospital beds?
  • Is large-scale testing in place?

The strategy advises member states to start easing their restrictions gradually. Targeted lockdowns should replace general ones, with only vulnerable citizens such as the elderly made to stay at home.

Until countries have witnessed a peak of COVID-19 cases and hospital capacity is restored, only then can they start lifting their restrictions.

Peaks will be determined by the level of testing individual nations have conducted and it will likely work hand-in-hand with smart phone apps that are capable of contract tracing. The data collected from these apps will be shared across the EU and it will not be blocked at borders.

All 27 EU member states approved of this strategy.

The Problems With the European Commission’s Plan

Yet the EC’s plan faces many problems. In the US, President Donald Trump wants lockdowns to be ended soon to revive the American economy, regardless of whether certain states where the virus has spread the most, like New York, have reached their peak of infections. However, the federal government cannot force states to end their lockdowns unless it deprives state governments of money or sends in the military.

The West Coast Pact and the East Coast Council have been formed to resist Washington’s lockdown instructions.

For the EU’s strategy to work, there would need to be a form of regional coordination like there is in the US. Forbes reports that the EC confirmed that no such strategy exists, but considering cross-border communication is key to ending European lockdowns, they need to have a regional strategy.

Prior to the unveiling of von der Leyen’s plan, many EU nations already adopted their own lockdown exit strategies. In Austria, DIY shops, garden centers and small shops opened on Monday under strict hygiene measures. From May 1, that policy is likely to be extended to shopping malls and hairdressers.

Italy is also preparing to open bookshops, stationers and children’s clothes shops whilst Spain’s factory workers returned to work on Monday.

Meanwhile in Denmark, Danish pupils are preparing to go back to school this month.

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that his own lockdown measures will remain in place until May 11 and only then will schools and colleges be reopened.

Is the EU Still in Charge of Member States on COVID-19?

Although these countries’ actions are in line with what the EC is proposing, the fact that certain nations were gradually lifting their own lockdown measures before von der Leyen announced her plan on Wednesday shows that different governments had already produced their own exit strategies before the EU created one for them.

With Sweden refusing to implement its own lockdown, this proves that the EU has become irrelevant in the way individual nations continually respond to the pandemic. Therefore, von der Leyen’s strategy will not apply to every single member state.

The EC President may believe that she finally has a plan that can save the EU from COVID-19, but the way certain European governments have acted since this epidemic began suggests that the concept of the nation state is more relevant than ever before, and this will thwart EU unity in the long-term.