External Publications

March 30, 2020

The propaganda virus: it is not the EU lacking solidarity, but the member states

While Poland has debated closing churches and agonised over the importance of communal prayer in protecting us against the virus, this is far from the main issue. As the epidemiological situation grows increasingly tense, Russia and China are taking the opportunity to undermine the European project. And unfortunately, they are finding support in Poland.

“What is the European Union doing about the coronavirus?!” The outraged tones of the Twitter commentary bubble erupted almost on cue. Social media reach went through the roof. Those who usually demand less activity from the EU, not more, were up in arms.

“Thank God we still have nation states,” tweeted Marcin Palade, a prominent specialist on election polling with a large social-media following. “Brussels remains silent… As if the EU didn’t exist…”, “Where are the Eurocrats?”, “Where is the #EuropeanUnion response to the #coronavirus threat?”

“How is it that at such moments it’s China giving aid to Italy, and not the European Union? At times like these we see that it [the EU] is mostly a business project,” claimed well-known left-wing activist Jan Śpiewak.

Polish state television, a mouthpiece for the conservative government, last night claimed in a news report that coronavirus has “exposed the weakness of the European Union”, which has “helplessly thrown up its hands” and left “the burden of fighting [the virus] on the member states”. It also praised China for its solidarity

That is the same state television that has for the last five years been complaining about Brussels’ “interference” in the internal affairs of member states and calling for greater national sovereignty.

Of course, one can argue that the EU is not doing enough about the pandemic. And to an extent I even agree. But the problem is that it is not to Brussels we should be complaining, but to the capitals of the member states. They were the ones who decided and enshrined in treaties the fact that the EU was not to meddle in matters of public health, and left it room only to encourage cooperation, coordinate actions and advise (which it is doing as much as it can).

The European Commission does not have the power to cancel teaching at schools in Germany, close churches in Poland, or suspend football leagues in Spain. And it cannot close the borders to curb the spreading of the virus, because restoring checks within the Schengen Area is also up to the member states. Nor does the European Commission have a secret factory producing masks and rubber gloves.

So it was not Brussels that was deaf to Rome’s appeal for delivery of equipment, but Berlin, Paris and Warsaw – in some cases even placing a ban on export, justified by threats to public health (the legality of which the European Commission may soon investigate). And somehow I have not heard any of those who have pointed the finger at the EU in the last few days calling on Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government to display solidarity and send equipment to Italy. Blaming the European Union for inactivity in a matter in which it has no competence is, at best, cynical.

Is the European Union really not doing anything, though? Of course not. It is acting in the areas where the treaties allow it to react. Two days before the Twitter rabble’s sudden enlightenment regarding the EU’s supposed inaction, the European Commission announced the release of budget funds and establishment of an investment fund worth 7.5 billion euro. Poland is to be the biggest recipient of the released funds.

Relaxation of the rules on the maximum budget deficit and public aid for companies was also promised – all this to minimise the negative economic consequences of the epidemic. Finally, 140 million euro was mobilised for research into a vaccine.

In contrast to the passive EU response, China garnered praise from quarters including the aforementioned Jan Śpiewak. Indeed, China has sent some doctors and medical equipment to Italy. But it did not do so out of charity – the Italians paid for the masks and ventilators. And we should not forget that just a month ago, it was Europe sending essential equipment to China.

The Chinese know very well how to exploit human naivety and market such gestures, however. Which is why today even this dystopian dictatorship can become a model of international solidarity. We need a reality check not only regarding the supposed Chinese gifts, but also Beijing’s approach to the outbreak of the pandemic.

According to the South China Morning Post, the first cases of coronavirus were recorded in China on 17 November. Yet the Chinese government swept the affair under the carpet, and even in late December and early January they were silencing the whistle blowers sounding the alarm about the threats, such as Dr Li Wenliang, who himself died of the virus.

Now the epidemiological situation in China has stabilised, the country’s propaganda machine has switched from “conceal the virus where possible” to a counter-attack speculating that it was the US army that implanted the virus in Wuhan.

While coming up against Chinese “public diplomacy” might be a new experience for many, Russian propaganda at least is something that public opinion leaders might be expected to be hardened to. What is at stake for Russia? In an op-ed piece for Russia Today, Damian Wilson asked, “First Brexit, then… CorExit?”, suggesting that the EU’s “mild response” to the coronavirus epidemic could be the “final nail in the coffin for European unity”.

There is no doubt that the EU could have reacted more effectively to the epidemic. But to do so, it would need the right tools, which the member states have not given it. So are the Italians justified in bemoaning the lack of support they have received from their neighbours? Yes. Just as they were justified when other states – with Poland at the forefront – refused support in relocating refugees. But the source of these problems is not the European community, but the self-interest of its members.

Perhaps it suits a section of the Polish right to have a weak, fragmented, or even non-existent European Union, replaced by nation states immersed in the eternal hell of mutual rivalry. Orchestrated, of course, by larger powers. But for everybody who wants Europe to be a place of solidarity, reacting better in crisis situations, there should only be one conclusion: we must press for deeper integration, and not attack it with the demagoguery of Moscow and Beijing’s whispering campaign.