BERLIN —The coronavirus pandemic, with its simultaneous health and economic crises, is deepening fault lines within Europe in a way some leaders fear could prove to be a final reckoning.
The cohesion of the European Union had been battered by Brexit, bruised by the political fallout from the 2015 migration surge and the 2008 financial crisis, and challenged by rising autocracy in the east that runs contrary to the professed ideals of the European project.
Now, if Europe’s leaders cannot chart a more united course, the project lies in what one of its architects described this week as “mortal danger.”
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the response among European Union member states showed that national interests trump more-altruistic European ideals. Border restrictions were reimposed haphazardly, and Germany and France threw up export bans on medical equipment such as masks and ventilators, even as Italy clamored for assistance.
Quick to capitalize were the propaganda machines of Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have swept in with much-trumpeted — if sometimes defective — medical aid, pushing a savior narrative and providing fodder for the region’s Euroskeptics.News to stay informed. Advice to stay safe.
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E.U. countries have begun to coordinate their efforts to procure supplies, and they have sent more aid to hard-hit Italy than China has. But the past week has seen a reemergence of a north-south rift over how to handle the economic response. The union is also being pulled east and west, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used emergency powers to effectively suspend democracy, riding roughshod over Europe’s basic principles of the rule of law.
Collectively, these tensions could overwhelm the alliance.
“This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the International Affairs Institute in Italy. “The reason why coronavirus is such an epochal challenge is not that it brought things out of the blue. It touches on all spheres and does so by accentuating dynamics that are already there. It’s as if it is bringing the extreme out of everything.”
Norbert Röttgen, a German politician jockeying to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, likened the continent’s infighting to “a grueling trench war,” as he joined the chorus of voices warning that the E.U. is in grave peril.
The debate has indeed been bitter. After nine countries, including Italy and Spain, requested financial support in the form of “corona bonds,” Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said Brussels should study why some governments lacked the financial wherewithal to fight the crisis on their own.
That comment, made during a private conference call of E.U. finance ministers, touched off a firestorm, since it sounded to critics as though the Dutch