How Italy’s SOS message was ignored as coronavirus engulfed Europe

Lofty ideals of solidarity evaporated as governments put national interests first

A masked visitor to the Colosseum in Rome
Lofty ideals of solidarity evaporated as governments put national interests first
(Image credit: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty)

As an organisation built on cross-border cooperation between some of the world’s richest and most scientifically advanced countries, the European Union was expected to lead with a show of strength during a global pandemic.

Instead, solidarity between members was abandoned as complacency turned to panic and national governments put their own interests above the greater good.

The story of the EU and Covid-19 is one of “governments belatedly recognising the speed at which the virus was spreading, only to rush into uncoordinated acts of protectionism in moments of ill-concealed panic”, says The Guardian.

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When “an urgent message was passed from Rome to the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels”, the newspaper continues, “the distress call was met with silence”.

Before the storm

In the early days of the outbreak, when efforts were focused on containing the coronavirus in China, “well-meaning officials in Brussels” failed to create a sense of urgency, says The Guardian, which has teamed up with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to report on how Europe tackled the crisis.

A conference call held on 17 January to discuss the outbreak was attended by only 12 of the 27 member states, plus the UK. And those that were involved couldn’t agree a common approach to screening air passengers arriving from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak.

Two weeks later, the Italian government - which had not taken part in the call - announced the first two confirmed cases of the virus in the Mediterranean country.

Italy immediately “suspended flights to and from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan”, says Bloomberg, and “the Czech government later followed suit”. But the rest of the EU allowed flights to continue.

Italy then sought a meeting of EU health ministers, but faced a three-week delay.

“The Croatian government, responsible for convening [the meeting] as holder of the rolling EU council presidency, had become embroiled in a financial scandal during which the prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, had been forced to fire his health minister,” The Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, many others in the bloc had been distracted by preparations for Brexit on 31 January.

Competing interests

By the time politicians had grasped the seriousness of the pandemic, they were in no mood for solidarity. On 3 March, French President Emmanuel Macron banned the export of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Germany followed suit the next day.

The NHS was one of many health services that fell victim to these requisitions. NHS bosses had “ordered millions of masks from Valmy SAS near Lyon earlier this year as Covid-19 threatened”, Euronews reported in early March.

But the company’s director, Nicolas Brillat, said French law meant he could no longer fulfil the order. “The requisition does not allow any wiggle room for us to deliver to the NHS, but it is complicated because the NHS was the first client to order and uses our masks all year long,” he said.

A subsequent decision by many EU countries to reimpose border controls also restricted the flow of medical equipment and even food. When Germany closed its frontiers, on 16 March, the immediate result was a 30-mile traffic jam on Polish approach roads.

Pan-European PPE failure

The EU set up a continent-wide PPE procurement programme, but the scheme was dogged by delays. “The first delivery of masks under the scheme was on 8 June,” The Guardian reports. The UK was eligible to join, but did not take part, despite suffering PPE shortages between March and May.

Several EU member states also shunned the programme, but “the European Commission says that orders have been placed under each of the four medical equipment schemes”, the BBC reported last week.

“Latvia’s order for 25,000 goggles and 100,000 surgical masks was delivered in June,” according to the broadcaster. “Bulgaria’s order for 55 ventilators is expected to be delivered by the end of July.”

Luxembourg has also received an order of a million gloves, but most countries have chosen to source the billions of PPE items they require without outside help.

The fallout

The failure of the EU to support Italy led the government in Rome to seek aid elsewhere.

At the height of the pandemic, “Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio hailed the arrival of a Chinese plane loaded with medical equipment and doctors to help fight the coronavirus - in what appeared to be a pointed rebuke to the EU”, according to Politico.

“His highly public praise of China came as many senior Italian officials have made clear they believe the EU and Italy’s European partners have shown a lack of solidarity with Italy as it battles the coronavirus.”

The response from Brussels has not gone unnoticed in Serbia, which has been vacillating between trying to join the EU or to deepen its relationship with Beijing.

“China has already announced that it will be providing assistance to Serbia, as the Balkan country struggles to mitigate the effects of the pandemic,” the Financial Times reported in March. The Chinese ambassador in Belgrade said Beijing was “very pleased” with the anti-EU stance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

“European solidarity does not exist,” Vucic said in March. “That was just a fairy tale on paper.”

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.