Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Europe: Member States against Coronavirus

Europe: Member States against Coronavirus
 Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano
Senior Fellow - Germany

The coronavirus crisis marks a great comeback of the European Union Member States. Faced with a pandemic for which it was unprepared, the European Union chose to take a step back. The suspension of budgetary rules and competition law, the re-establishment of borders and the suspension of the main freedoms of the European Union gave the Member States back their sovereignty. During the crisis, the States thus regained their ability to make decisions in exceptional circumstances.

Paradoxically, this crisis has also enabled European states to experience their vicinity. In a new essay entitled "Is It Tomorrow, Yet? How the Pandemic Changes Europe?" (published by Premier parallèle, 2020), Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev shows how much this crisis has accentuated the comparison between European states: "Comparisons are a constant feature of any politics, but citizens usually measure the performance of a government in contrast with the efficiency of previous governments or with the promises of the opposition. COVID-19 has established a different type of comparison, with citizens comparing their government’s performance with those in other countries in real time."

The current popular tendency to "judge" the actions of the French government's calls for a close look at the way France’s European neighbors proceeded to deal with this epidemic. How can we assess France's reaction, both in terms of health and economy, in relation to its neighbors? Has the crisis revealed the fragility of the country’s health system, even if it is considered as one of the most effective in the world? And what political lessons can be drawn from this comparison between European states?


The lockdown: a broad consensus in Europe

Italy, which was affected by the epidemic before other European states, was the first country to implement a response to the crisis that radically broke with the European concept of "normality". By deciding to quarantine the main coronavirus "hotspots", by announcing a national lockdown of the peninsula and by choosing to suspend all activities that were not essential to the life of the country, Italy was the first democratic state to demonstrate an ability to drastically restrict freedoms in order to fight the epidemic.

COVID-19 has established a different type of comparison, with citizens comparing their government’s performance with those in other countries in real time.

The lockdown implemented in Italy, and replicated in other European countries, is an unprecedented measure with significant economic effects. Now that the virus is receding, the outlook for the European economy is particularly bleak, but it should be remembered that all European states entered lockdown within a few days. Between March 5 (closure of schools in Italy) and March 23 (start of lockdown in the United Kingdom) Europe confined itself in varying degrees, depending on the country. Today, all European states are gradually entering the final stages of post-lockdown.

Sweden is an exception. Although the search for "herd immunity" cannot be the official definition of its strategy, Sweden remains to date the only state that did not impose a lockdown on its population. Breaking with the Scandinavian countries’ approaches (and Denmark’s, in particular), this strategy now seems to be contested: on June 4, 2020, the death toll for 100,000 inhabitants (45.8) exceeded that of France (43.2), Sweden now ranking fifth in all of Europe. Incidentally, Sweden is also going through recession, expected to reach 6.1% of GDP in 2020. That is less than what is expected, on average, within the European Union (-7.7% for 2020), but worse than in Austria (-5.5%) or Poland (-4.3%), whose lockdown measures allowed for a better protection of the population.

At the crossroads of the Italian and Swedish approaches, a way to sustain economic activity while saving as many lives as possible could have been to impose lockdown only on those who were at risk. Widely debated in several European countries, the targeted lockdown of people over the age of 65 was never implemented: only the canton of Uri, in Switzerland, tried to impose this measure before being warned against it by the federal government. In Switzerland, however, as in other European countries, the coronavirus victims’ average age is around 80.

The resilience of health systems

All European countries pursued the same objective, more or less immediately: namely, to flatten the contamination curve in order to avoid saturation of the healthcare system. In this context, the solidity of each country's healthcare system, and specifically the number of hospital beds available, played a key role in the ability of states to fight the epidemic.

In this respect, the emergence of the virus led to the questioning of several certainties. For example, the French social model had, until then, enjoyed a particularly positive reputation in Europe: the coronavirus outbreak revealed that Germany held five-times more intensive care beds, with a similar share of health expenditure to GDP in both countries. For many states, the Covid-19 crisis marked the end of illusions: Spain, convinced that it had the "best health system in the world", had its healthcare system saturated. The country now has one of the highest human death rates on the continent: 58.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, not far behind the United Kingdom (61.1), but still far behind Belgium (84.1). These figures should nevertheless be viewed with caution, as the methods of calculation may differ between countries.

While the strength of hospital systems has been important in managing the epidemic, the main lesson of the crisis remains one of humility. The analysis of the Italian situation, particularly when comparing the strategies implemented in Lombardy and Veneto, confirms once again that an approach based on prevention, namely, in this case, targeted screening, is more effective than the extensive recourse to emergency hospitalization.

Several European states, aware of the fragility of their healthcare systems, quickly set up specific measures to monitor the chain of contaminations and to prevent the spread of the virus. This is the case of Estonia, whose use of digital tools made it possible to effectively contain the epidemic, as well as Greece, asserting itself as an unexpected model through its management of the health crisis.

Responses are sometimes more political than they seem

The solidity of each country's healthcare system, and specifically the number of hospital beds available, played a key role in the ability of states to fight the epidemic.

In all European states, governments relied on scientific expertise to substantiate the validity of their decisions. The creation of Scientific Councils or the use of National Health Agencies have enabled governments to base their decisions on the rationality criterion. In most European countries, virologists and epidemiologists have established themselves as the new figures in the political debate: Jean François Delfraissy and Didier Raoult in France, Christian Drosten or Lothar Wieler in Germany, Daniel Koch in Switzerland or Anders Tegnell in Sweden... However, politics have not exactly moved aside in favour of scientific expertise. A close observation of the various European responses to the crisis reveals that governments made use of their chosen management strategy to assert a particular political profile. Conservative, socialist or liberal management styles of the crisis can thus be observed.

To contain the spread of the epidemic in Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz chose to impose particularly strict measures at an early stage, establishing himself as an "active" leader amidst an "expectant" Europe. By deciding to quarantine the main outbreaks of the epidemic and to quickly close its borders with Italy, the Austrian Chancellor was able to revive his narrative of border protection, which he had emphasized during the migrant crisis. This conservative response, which was also observed in Poland and the Czech Republic, is characterized by the enforcement of particularly restrictive measures, and by a call for discipline on the part of the population.

On the other end of the spectrum, some governments were able to use the crisis to assert the "social" dimensions of their policies. Spain established one of the strictest confinements in Europe, leading to children being totally locked down for almost two months. But in order to protect the most vulnerable groups from the economic consequences of the crisis, Socialist President Pedro Sanchez, allied with the radical left, also chose to set up a real "social shield", speeding up the introduction of a universal basic income. At the same time, in Portugal, the socialists in Antonio Costa's government regularized asylum seekers, giving them access to healthcare. In these states, the existence of a universal health system was presented as a major achievement of the socialists, enabling their country to face the crisis more efficiently.

The Liberal approach was probably the most difficult to maintain during this crisis. After renouncing the theory of collective immunity, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte finally chose to trust the people’s cooperation in the establishment of an "intelligent lockdown" in the Netherlands. Similarly, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to return to a laissez-faire attitude which led to dramatic consequences, and imposed strict lockdown in the United Kingdom at the end of March.

The Liberal approach was probably the most difficult to maintain during this crisis.

Crisis management is always part of a political project. In their own way, all the governments in Europe were able to turn their different managements of the epidemic into political markers, consistent with their ideological lines.


A recent article in the New York Times, showed surprise at the French people's mistrust of their government, even though it had managed to overcome the epidemic. But the context of a European perspective is crucial when judging the government's actions.

The crisis initially seemed to render the European project insignificant, but it has made Europeans acknowledge their shared destiny. The European Union now appears essential for the economic recovery of the Member States. As Ivan Krastev points out in his latest essay: "But while the return of the nation state was the inevitable response to such a massive public health danger, in a world lacking American leadership and sundered by US–China rivalry, a more united Europe and Brussels endowed with emergency powers may turn out to be the only realistic solution for dealing with the next phase of the crisis". The construction of Europe has for too long been based on limiting the sovereignty of the Member States: this crisis now requires the investment of a new sovereignty at the European level.




related content
Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English