Italy is in lockdown. Schools and universities are closed, soccer games suspended, and restaurant visits banned amid a rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in the country. Just grocery stores and pharmacies are allowed to stay open, and only absolutely necessary travel is permitted. One might think that fellow European Union countries would count their blessings and send their Italian friends a few vital supplies, especially since the Italians have asked for it. They have sent nothing.
EU countries' shameful lack of solidarity with the Italians points to a larger problem: What would European countries do if one of them faced an even greater crisis?
The Union Civil Protection Mechanism is the bland name under which the EU's crisis hub—the Emergency Response Coordination Centre—operates. It monitors natural and manmade disasters around the clock, and when an EU member state can no longer handle a crisis on its own it can turn to the crisis hub. The hub forwards the appeal to other member states, which can then volunteer assistance. (The assistance is later reimbursed by the recipient country).
Two years ago, for example, with devastating forest fires spreading around the country, Sweden turned to the Emergency Response Coordination Centre, and Stockholm's plea yielded a heartwarming response. Portugal sent two firefighting aircraft; Germany contributed five helicopters and 53 firefighters; Lithuania sent one helicopter and Norway eight. France dispatched 60 firefighters and two aircraft; Denmark sent 60 firefighters; Poland sent over 130 firefighters and more than 40 fire trucks. Italy, itself in a dangerous forest-fire season, sent two aircraft.
When the European helpers arrived in Sweden, locals greeted them with applause. It was a powerful illustration of a frequently forgotten reality: The European Union is about more than tedious financial transactions; it's also about helping fellow European countries in need.
Last month, when COVID-19 began spreading rapidly in Italy, the country appealed for help via the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. "We asked for supplies of medical equipment, and the European Commission forwarded the appeal to the member states," Italy's permanent representative to the EU, Maurizio Massari, told me. "But it didn't work."
So far, not a single EU member state has sent Italy the needed supplies. That's tragic for a country with 21,157 coronavirus infections and 1,441 deaths as of March 14, and with medical staff working under severe shortages of supplies.
To be sure, all governments need to make sure they have enough supplies for their own hospitals, patients, and medical staff. But no European country is suffering remotely as badly as Italy. Spain and France have a high caseload, but as of March 14, Finland has just 225 cases, and Italy's neighbor Austria only 655. Portugal has 169 cases; Ireland 90; Romania, 109; Poland, 93; Bulgaria, 37; and Hungary has 25 cases. Many of those countries have benefited greatly from European solidarity in the past; a number of them are net beneficiaries of the EU, meaning they get more money out of their membership than they pay into it. The United Kingdom, no longer a member of the European Union, has 1,140 coronavirus cases—and it, too, has failed to help the Italians.
In the meantime, a partial and flawed savior has arrived. Close to midnight on March 12, a Chinese aircraft landed in Rome carrying nine medical experts and 31 tons of medical supplies including intensive care unit equipment, medical protective equipment, and antiviral drugs. Around the same time, a Chinese truck arrived in Italy bringing more than 230 boxes of medical equipment. It was less than Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi had promised Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio of Italy in a phone call on Tuesday, but two days after the phone call the supplies were on their way.
Italy has already had a taste of Europe's lack of solidarity. During the 2015 refugee crisis some 1.7 million people arrived on EU territory, mostly in Italy and Greece (with Germany and Sweden the most common destinations), but in 2017 some EU member states were still refusing to accept them under a solidarity scheme. "The coronavirus crisis is similar to the refugee crisis: Countries that are not immediately affected are mostly not willing to help," Massari said. "Different countries obviously have different threat perceptions. We [Italy] feel that the coronavirus is a global and European threat that needs a European response, but other countries don't see it that way."
Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute