Bloc unity was rapidly ditched as COVID-19 swept across the continent and member states took a ruthless every-man-for-himself approach. Germany swiftly banned the export of protective equipment and medical devices to fellow member states, France confiscated breathing masks to prevent them from leaving the country and internal borders were slammed shut overnight as governments scrambled to contain the disease.
Cash-strapped Italy, which was hit hard and fast by the coronavirus outbreak, felt isolated as it tried to tackle the crisis without the support it had expected from Brussels and was forced to question the benefits of EU membership.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was asked if the bloc could ever recover from the astonishing displays of self-interest and the mistrust created by each country’s unilateral response to the pandemic.
She said: “I think the wounds are still noticeable. But they heal.”
She continued: “Most importantly, the member states sometimes had a comprehensible reflex to focus on themselves at the beginning because they also supposedly wanted to protect their own people in this way.
“Then it became very clear that we are destroying our great European achievement and that if we team up, we will be strong and good.
“You could actually see that in examples that the flow of goods for medical goods was suddenly interrupted.
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“But the economy as a whole was also severely damaged by the borders that were suddenly closed, and then it became clear to all member states that we were harming ourselves, and Europe is what gives us strength.
“The moment we once again went ahead in Europe together, introduced the green corridors at the borders, made sure that medical goods were bought globally and that we distributing them together, it went better.
“And now, especially in the great economic crisis, it is noticeable that everyone is right to say, together as 27 with the European idea above, we have a strength that no one else can develop.”
Ms Von der Leyen said the European Commission was now introducing measures to try to ensure the splits nearly ripped the EU apart at the height of the pandemic would not happen again in the future.
She said: “We have learned that there are issues we have to tackle and improve at a European level and that is why we are now tackling them with a new impetus, for example that data is collected robust in such a pandemic and that we also have a European overview of developments in the pandemic.
“Now, the European Union is able to buy, store and distribute medical protective goods itself to those who urgently need it.
“We have made the state aid flexible, we have loosened the Stability Pact so that billions and millions of dollars can be injected into the economy immediately, in the case of a paralysed economy.
“We launched a short-time work package just to name a few topics.
“Here you can see how much the European Union has grown together and how helpful these existing structures are in a serious crisis, to act quickly and flexibly.”