Flags of European Union in Brussels (Photo Credit: Kathimerini.gr)

In a joint editorial on the COVID-19 pandemic, Wolfgang Ischinger and Boris Ruge explain why the current situation constitutes a matter of life or death for the European Union. “Faced with the greatest crisis since World War II, the EU must focus on winning hearts and minds.”

In the age of COVID-19, the enormous consequences of the pandemic are becoming increasingly evident with every passing week. The task at hand is to save lives. But the task is also to save the Union: Decision-makers must ensure that the EU emerges from the crisis strong enough to deal with the challenges within and to hold its own in a world of great power competition.

The German government has been praised for its crisis management with regard to economic and social issues. But it has been slow in articulating a European vision and has faced harsh criticism from Brussels and EU partners.

Many Italians and Spaniards feel that neither Brussels nor EU partners are providing anything close to enough support. The polls are clear: More than 60% polled in Italy say Europe is not helping. From their point of view, there’s no value added in the EU as the situation becomes increasingly desperate.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are presenting themselves as selfless saviours in Italy and elsewhere. As High Representative Borrell wrote in a notable blog, Europe is in the midst of a “battle of narratives”. In reality, support extended by EU partners is more substantial than what China has delivered as part of its carefully scripted propaganda effort. Add to the delivery of essential medical equipment the treatment of French and Italian patients in Germany (and other EU countries) as well as joint efforts to repatriate stranded EU travelers from all over the world.

The trouble is that this help was slow in coming and poorly communicated. And obviously, what has been done so far is not nearly enough as case numbers continue to explode.

It is hardly a detail if citizens across several member states feel abandoned in an existential crisis. A new Facebook group in Italy called “#StopEU-Italexit” rapidly attracted more than 900,000 followers and is working to take that number to 1 million soon. Europe cannot afford to alienate so many citizens. It must turn the tide.

On the substance, it is obvious that Europe will not be able to get a handle on the crisis unless we pursue solutions at EU level. In her hard-hitting EP speech on 26 March, Ursula von der Leyen rightly blasted member states for their selfishness and lack of coordination over the past weeks.

As a leader in Europe, Berlin must do the maximum to promote EU action. An obvious way of doing so would be to throw its weight behind commission initiatives already on the table, including measures to coordinate procurement and distribution of critical equipment such as masks, gloves, test kits, and ventilators. While the European Council of 26 March called on the Commission to speed things up, in reality, the ball is in the court of member states who must sign contracts and streamline administrative procedures.

Tangible and visible solidarity among Europeans is no less important. The Commission has a crucial role to play in terms of coordination. However, resources and assistance for hard-hit partners must come from member states. Germany and other partners must further step up their support to Italy, Spain, and France. A positive response to France’s request for the use of Bundeswehr helicopters would provide desperately needed help and would at the same time be highly symbolic.

Making rapid progress on the development, testing, and deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine as highlighted by the European Council is another “line of operation” in which the EU can leverage its comparative advantage and potentially shift popular attitudes in the process.

In order to weather the impact of the pandemic, the EU will need to do many things, including maintaining the single market, adopting a sufficiently resourced multiannual financial framework, and coming to an agreement on future financing mechanisms.

The European Central Bank has taken important decisions that will help Europe pull through. The European Investment Bank has also stepped up. By contrast, Ministers and Heads of State/Government have not come together to the extent necessary. Differences of opinion on financial instruments remain. They will not vanish overnight, but they must be discussed with the utmost sensitivity and respect. Long-held positions must be re-examined and re-evaluated for their suitability in the current emergency. Ultimately, what is needed is rapid action that makes an impact and supports European economies and the livelihoods of millions of citizens.

Finally, communicating EU action and the added value of the Union to a skeptical (and in parts hostile) audience will be crucial. To be successful, the EU needs to mobilize top talent and to ensure the closest possible coordination between Brussels and national capitals. Perhaps the example of the Media Operations Center set up during NATO’s 1999 air campaign in which national and alliance comms experts worked side by side while supporting the top-level spokespersons on a daily basis can be instructive. In any case, what is needed is a truly strategic communications effort.

In the wake of last week’s European Council, Portugal’s PM Costa was quoted as saying “Either the EU does what needs to be done or it will end.” This is indeed about survival. Faced with the greatest crisis since World War II, the EU must focus on winning hearts and minds. For that to happen, member states must show that solidarity is real and that together we can make the difference for millions of Europeans in the life-and-death situation which is now our shared reality.

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC); Ambassador Boris Ruge is Vice Chairman of the MSC.