March 21, 2020
The new EU commission president got her 30 day shutdown agreement from member states, but there are signs that her appointment was a real gaffe by euro federalists as it becomes clear that the EU is not in control of any virus contingency plans.
"Be careful what you wish for" might be words some mutter when they think of the engagement of Germany's Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president last November. Traditionally the post of the powerful Commission president has always gone to an obscure, failed politician from an even obscurer EU member state, with perhaps the exception of Jacques Delors in the mid 80s, who, arguably, wasn't known much outside of France in that period.
But this German lightweight, with the unfortunate nickname of VDL (which in Britain conjures ideas of a sexually transmitted disease), broke the mould on failing to achieve anything while being in the federal government where even colleagues in Berlin opposed her nomination for the EU post on the ground of being sensationally unremarkable.
But the EU elite, the real powers in Brussels who have funny handshakes and whose sweaty palms are on the real powers over member states, like "also ran" candidates. This is seen as very much a positive thing when installing your own puppet in the top euro job.
Yet, given the EU's rancid if not delusional ideas of how to pull itself out of its own political crisis - take more power, decentralise more away from member states, build stronger foreign policy and swell the budget considerably (presumably to pay for more fake news from journalists who are indirectly on the EU payroll) - one would have thought that this old business model needed a second look. Surely, a heavyweight pro federalist leader with a guilt edged profile, which media lapped up, would have been the ticket? Someone like Tony Blair for example?
Dear Ursula's failure this week to garner support from EU member states to all stick to a single policy on the dreaded Corona Virus, rather than all develop their own policies on borders and national health initiatives, failed spectacularly though. If anything, it goes to show how weak and ineffective the EU is as, when tested under a crisis, the real confidence, the vote of confidence from national governments no less, just isn't there. It's like governments are saying we love the EU, we really do, and we see it as such a great thing...but when the shit hits the fan, we'll take it from here, thanks.
On Sunday 15th of March, Germany moved to impose travel restrictions along most of its borders, without even bothering to informed its neighbouring countries. Several European Union members - including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Portugal and Denmark - had also taken moves to impose border restrictions, in some cases with little advance notification. Is any of this legal? What about Schengen?
This must have panicked Ursula who, on the Monday 16th, made the cringe-worthy plea through a video conference for calm and for everyone to do as the new EU Commission president wants. And so on the following day, she appealed to member states through a video conference for her 30 day travel ban proposal to be approved.
Finally the chaos was brought under control. But it was Germany's Angela Merkel who announced the news of an EU-wide 30-day shut down on non-EU citizens. Until that point, 27 member states went ahead with their own polices and almost certainly the move to agree on the Ursula proposal, was pushed through by Macron and Merkel as not only a common sense move, but also a political one to support the new European Commission president who for a number of days was really not on the ball.
And yet it didn't stop a number of EU member states continuing with their own internal border rules, which bypassed entirely the European Commission president.
But what no one saw coming was the extraordinary reaction from Serbia - an EU candidate country - whose president took the opportunity to more or less declare its loathing of Brussels, as it saw the proposal as a direct threat to its relations with China. Importantly, the draft of the text prohibits EU member states (and those in line to join the EU) seeking to acquire medical equipment outside of the EU (as well as exporting medical equipment out of the EU-27 block) which drew the wrath of the Serbian president, who more or less spat blood while taking about Brussels.
"European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale," he said at a conference which soon became vital on social media. "The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People's Republic of China. For the rest of them, thanks for nothing."
President Aleksandar Vucic slammed the decision by Ursula to impose such measures and has practically begged the Chinese premier to help with medical equipment and doctors, as he sees no help whatsoever coming from other EU member states or even Brussels.
His move might well see Serbia's accession process slowed down or even annulled as the EU is quite a petulant beast and doesn't take kindly to accession countries who try to defy it. Turkey's bid to become an EU member state is put on the ‘never-never' back burner of EU politics following a number of run ins with its headstrong leader Recep Erdogan who doesn't really buy the carrot-and-stick approach from Brussels.
Are we witnessing, via a bumbling management of Corona the meltdown of the EU's accession policy? Possibly. Other eastern European countries which are already in the block but also have a deep scepticism of Brussels may well take Serbia's lead and go ahead with their own plans to protect their own citizens, from taking China's help or others. So far, we are not only looking at a catastrophe from a pan-European health perspective but also the first signs of an illness within the Commission itself which keeps up some of its senior members late at night fretting about its fate: a dire lack of confidence of its president.
Ursula weathered the storm this time, due to Macron and Merkel's help but the move from the EU president is not nearly enough to save both the health epidemic and its implications towards EU economies but also a political crisis in Brussels. What she has done is too way too little and way too late. A number of emergency measures have also been taken to open up emergency funds to help companies threatened with collapse or for jobs. In Ireland alone, 140,000 jobs have been lost, for example with Spain's own central government coughing up a staggering 219 bn euros as a rescue package. That's 20% of its entire annual GDP. Compared to the few billion announced by the EU, this puts into perspective how the dithering EU neither has the ability to handle such crises - as it never prepares for contingency plans as it fears this will make it look like the project is a failure [read euro bail outs] - but also how it doesn't even have the funds. Or rather, it does have the funds if it didn't spend billions on propping up despots in African countries with ‘humanitarian aid' which is linked directly to flows of immigrants leaving the region and ending up in Libya. Interestingly, Ursula has agreed that the EU commission needs to relax EU state aid rules during this emergency, which in practical terms means giving EU governments the green light to use their own taxpayers' money to rescue old, large companies - hardly comforting news if you're a boss of a small firm facing losses and bankruptcy. What happened to the tomes and tomes of euro-garble about "supporting SMEs" which the Commission endlessly has harped on about for the last quarter century? Or jobs? The cats out of the bag.
Surely if the EU can just drop hugely important state aid rules which are the cornerstone of the single market, which the EU holds to dear, and it has no rescue plan for the small and medium sized enterprises which are surely going to go under, then really what role can we expect from the EU? Under the commission president Ursula, clearly not much. Or at least not much which amounts to anything more than just providing the office space for a talk shop for EU member states. If the EU can't even contain the virus and take measures to protect it though, what should we really make of its plans to forge ahead with an EU army with a bolder foreign policy agenda? In fact, all we need to do, to answer that question, is look at the mess created on the Turkish-Greek border as the EU's failed immigration and asylum policy wreaks havoc and drives home the point that the "fairy tale" of the EU as an international player is becoming recognised. In the coming months we will see EU member states abandon any directives from Ursula in Brussels and will take matters into their own hands. The dream of the euphemism of "further integration" [read decentralising power from member states to Brussels] which was parroted when the new commission took office at the end of 2019 will end up as European citizens' nightmare. If Ursula van der Leyen was considered to be the answer, the then question must have been a pretty stupid one.
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