Stop Shutting Borders and Start Working Together

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Apocalyptic visions of hastily-raised national barriers to trade, long lines of trucks gathering at the border, and shortages of essential supplies have haunted Europe ever since the U.K. voted to leave the bloc since 2016. If such a scenario is getting closer to reality, it has little to do with Brexit and everything to do with the coronavirus pandemic.

Erratic border restrictions across the 27-member bloc, put up by around a dozen countries including Spain, Germany and Poland in the name of combating the spread of Covid-19, are starting to bite. Poland’s closure of its borders to non-citizens and travel suspensions have created lines of vehicles stretching at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) on the Lithuanian border, according to Bloomberg News, with bottlenecks also seen in Hungary and Switzerland. While goods are supposed to be unaffected, they’re getting caught up in the delays, with the International Road Transport Union saying European crossings are in chaos.

Food and medicine flows are increasingly at risk: EU adviser Maria Capobianchi warned that internal borders were making it “more difficult” for virus-stricken Italy to receive medical equipment. A fear of shortages has pushed several countries to ban medical-equipment exports to ensure their own citizens get priority.

The danger of unpicking the very fabric of the EU — free movement, frictionless trade, unity and solidarity — is being justified in the name of public health. The Covid-19 case tally has risen recently in Europe, now dubbed the “epicenter” of the outbreak; the amount of combined cases in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K. and the Netherlands now exceeds China’s total of 80,928. Slowing the spread of disease and flattening the infection curve is put forward as the end that justifies the means of beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Spain has declared a state of emergency; France says it’s in a state of war. Few EU leaders talk about Europe when addressing the crisis — the mood is very much every country for itself.

Such knee-jerk reactions are pretty counter-productive. If this were genuinely a war between states, or some kind of emergency restricted to a single country, it might make sense to kick solidarity or cooperation to the curb. But this is a virus that doesn’t respect borders or nationalities. Every country within continental Europe has at least one confirmed case of Covid-19. When Austria earlier this month closed its border to people from Italy without a medical certificate, it had fewer than 200 cases; today, it has over 2,000. No state is immune.

Collective action makes much more sense in a crisis like this than national restrictions. There are economies of scale when it comes to health care, whether it’s the pooling of financial resources to fund vaccine research or the procurement of medical equipment. Information-sharing would allow for supply-chain bottlenecks to be properly monitored and addressed. The European Commission has taken some steps towards better resource management: On Thursday it announced a 50 million-euro ($53.4 million) stockpile of equipment such as ventilators and protective masks to support countries facing shortages. But much more will need to be done, and urgently. Healthcare is ultimately the preserve of individual EU countries, not Brussels, and they’re moving slowly.

In the meantime, the risk of restricting the flow of essential medical equipment, whether through export bans or the knock-on effects of border controls, is growing — and is surely the definition of shortsightedness. At a time when Germany has spare capacity for devices like ventilators, it’s awkward that Italy’s call for emergency supplies was recently answered by China rather than its European partners.

The argument for solidarity isn’t just ethical in such a closely integrated economy,  as London School of Economics’s Joan Costa Font tells me: If Covid-19 measures are supposed to be temporary, it is in each EU country’s self-interest to ensure that their neighbors have what they need to control the epidemic and eventually stamp it out so that their own citizens can feel safe and assured when frictionless trade and free movement will return one day.  China seems to have understood that, at least.

Cooperation may be easier said than done when dealing with 27 countries. But at a time when the pandemic is proving difficult to halt — Italy has now surpassed China as the country with the most coronavirus deaths — and with its global economic impact likely to run upwards of $1 trillion, it’s a fair bet that working together will bring far more benefits than shutting borders.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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