‘Swift action’? By the EU? You’ve got to be kidding me...

How would I react if I were a resident of Bergamo, or Milan, or Cremona, or Piacenza… or any of the other Northern Italian towns which, by that date, had already been reduced to Apocalyptic scenes straight out of Daniel Defoe’s ’Journal of the Plague Year’?

Sometimes I wonder what sort of planet people like Roberta Metsola are really living on. And believe me, I mean that in the nicest way possible… for it must be a truly wonderful place to be: simply bursting at the seams with ‘compassion’, ‘solidarity’, ‘efficiency’… you know, all the amazing virtues we were once led to believe were synonymous with the European Union (only to recently discover otherwise, to our cost).

Last Thursday, for instance, Metsola praised the EU for its ‘swift action’ in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “The speed with which Europe has responded, and the unity of our response, shows that Europe can respond in crisis and I am pleased that our Union has shown leadership in addressing the crisis...”

Got that, everyone? Apparently, the EU responded ‘swiftly’… and even demonstrated ‘unity’ among its 27 different member states. Or at least, that is what is supposed to have happened in the parallel universe inhabited by so many MEPs and other EU officials.

Out here in the real world, however, things are looking kind of different. The above claim was made last Thursday, March 26 – when the European Parliament voted into effect a €37 billion aid package “to support healthcare systems, businesses and jobs.”

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Until you realise that the crisis has been busy wrecking European economies for quite some time before March 26. Italy, for instance, declared a state of emergency all the way back on January 31: almost exactly two whole months ago. And by March 11, the same country had ordered a lockdown on all non-essential commercial enterprises: basically, everything except supermarkets and pharmacies.

Yet we had to wait until only last Thursday for the European Parliament to finally take its ‘swift’ action… at a time when the average death-toll, in Italy alone, stood at over 750 a day.

I mention this last detail – Italy’s death-toll – not because it has any direct relevance to the strictly economic effects of the crisis: but because it is another reality that the rest of the EU seems to have been rather slow to acknowledge.

First off, there was the small matter of Italy’s initial plea for medical aid: largely in the form of face-masks and doctors. Once again, we had to wait until Thursday, 26 March – a date which I suspect may yet go down in history, for all the wrong reasons – for the European Commission to issue a statement boasting that ‘Germany and France have donated more face-masks to Italy than China and Russia’.

And that’s great news, I am the first to admit. There is, however, a teenie-weenie little snag. Italy’s original plea for help was made (once again) on March 11. And not only did other European countries fail to initially respond… but some of them actually did the opposite (Germany and France, for instance, imposed limits on the export of protective equipment to other countries, including Italy.)

This, I fear, is the context in which the aid delivered by China and Russia – and other third countries, including Cuba – must be adjudicated. For while it is indeed wonderful that the European Commission eventually managed to convince member states to show a little solidarity for a change… that help was rather late in coming.

Fifteen days late, to be precise: by which time, the daily mortality rate in Italy had risen to 793 on March 25 alone (the day before the Commission’s triumphant announcement).

To put it more bluntly: of the total 8,215 deaths recorded in Italy since this crisis began, over 7,500 occurred between March 11 – when Italy launched its desperate plea - and March 26, when other EU countries finally responded.

And granted: there is no guarantee that the death-toll would have been significantly lower, had other European countries not taken more than two weeks (!) to respond to such a basic request. But the question has to be asked all the same: how many Italian lives were saved, since March 11, by the generosity (dubious though the intentions may be) of countries like Russia, China and Cuba? And how does that figure compare to the number of lives saved by direct European intervention over the same time period?

Meanwhile, there is further evidence that the EU (contrary to the impression it is now desperately trying to impart) took the equivalent of an eternity to even begin taking this crisis with the seriousness it deserves.

On March 13, for instance – i.e., almost six weeks after Italy’s declaration of emergency – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed a press conference, in which she actually had the temerity to say that: “we just are [sic] at the beginning of the crisis”.

I remember reading that, and thinking: how would I react if I were a resident of Bergamo, or Milan, or Cremona, or Piacenza… or any of the other Northern Italian towns which, by that date, had already been reduced to Apocalyptic scenes straight out of Daniel Defoe’s ’Journal of the Plague Year’?

But no matter: we all know what von der Leyen really meant with that incredibly insensitive remark. It was ‘the beginning of the crisis’ only insofar as the rest of Europe was concerned – i.e., the countries that had yet to be severely affected. Which also means that… well, as long as it was ‘only Italy’ that was grappling with an unprecedented existential threat, with the rest of Europe as yet mostly unaffected… what need was there for any hurry?

And indeed, the rest of von der Leyen’s statement displays an equally nonchalant lack of urgency. She even criticised individual member states for taking the initiative of closing their borders to minimise the spread of the virus (and thus maybe spare themselves Italy’s fate).

“The Single Market has to function,” she said… leaving no room for any doubt whatsoever as to the European Commission’s real priorities in times of crisis. “It is not good when Member States take unilateral action,” she continued… omitting to mention that the alternative to ‘unilateral action’, at the time, was to sit back and wait for the EU to take action of its own: which, with hindsight, would have meant waiting at least two weeks, for a decision that never actually materialised.

For while the European Parliament did eventually come up with a response (and, in all fairness, it was a pretty decent response, too)… it bears mentioning that the European Parliament, on its own, does not exactly constitute ‘the EU’.

There’s also the Council of Ministers; and it just so happens that on the same day (March 26) as the EP voted in its much-vaunted aid package, the Council met, via teleconferencing, to decide on a response of its own.

Do I even need to tell you how that panned out in the end? Well… perhaps I do. For while the local (overwhelmingly pro-EU) press are always quick to report on any ‘good news’ coming from Brussels… they spectacularly failed to report that the March 26 meeting only resulted in yet another stalemate at Council level.

Yes, I know it’s hard to believe: but even at a time like this – i.e., with European citizens literally dying like flies – the 27 member states proved simply incapable of reaching any form of agreement over Italy’s desperate request (backed by France, Spain and others) for “extraordinary and exceptional measures” to help the hardest-hit European economies.

This is how it was reported in The Guardian last Thursday: “The EU’s 27 leaders papered over deep divisions by agreeing that another fortnight was needed to discuss ambitious economic recovery plans. After a testy debate over ‘coronabonds’ – i.e raising funds through issuing shared European debt – the bloc kicked a decision down the road, by calling on EU finance leaders to present proposals within two weeks…”

Two weeks, huh? So much, I suppose, for Metsola’s simpering praise for “the speed with which Europe has responded, and the unity of our response.” Thanks to the evident disunity at Council level, we now have to wait another fortnight for Europe’s finance ministers to come back with their own proposals: which also means that, in two weeks’ time, we will probably have another 27 different approaches to choose from… resulting in another inconclusive meeting, which can only be expected to postpone any final decision to yet another future, indeterminate date.

And all along, we are supposed to heed the European Commission’s earlier advice, and not take any ‘unilateral action’ of our own. In other words, we are all expected to sit back and wait – and wait, and wait, and WAIT – until the EU finally lives up to Ursula von der Leyen’s March 13 promise of a ‘determined, coordinated and united’ response to the crisis.

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