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The EU Is Abandoning Italy in Its Hour of Need

In a shameful abdication of responsibility, fellow countries in the European Union have failed to give medical assistance and supplies to Italy during an outbreak. China is filling the void.

Hospital employees wearing a protection mask and gear work at a temporary emergency structure at the Brescia hospital, Lombardy, on March 13.
Hospital employees wearing a protection mask and gear work at a temporary emergency structure at the Brescia hospital, Lombardy, on March 13. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

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.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

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.

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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.

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.

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.”

Europe’s selfishness is morally lamentable, and it’s unwise, because misery loves company. A struggling Italy will drag its European friends down, too, starting with their economies. But the cold response to Italy’s plea points to a larger issue: How would European allies respond in case of crisis even more devastating than the coronavirus—say, a massive cyberattack that knocks out power for a prolonged period of time? Without electrical power, other critical functions quickly cease to function, too. Brno University Hospital— home to one of the Czech Republic’s largest COVID-19 testing labs—has already been hit by a serious cyber attack.

The fact that no country—with the possible exception of China—can survive without close allies is the reason that NATO was founded 71 years ago and the European Coal and Steel Community three years later. NATO’s member states are supposed to do their best to defend their countries, but they all know that they need one another: Collective defense is NATO’s raison d’être. Only the United States has considerable supplies of ammunition; all the other member states know that they can turn to the U.S. military if they run out, as happened during NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya.

Yet at a moment of extreme hardship for a key EU (and NATO) member, Italy’s allies are showing that they can’t be counted on in a severe crisis—and that means Italy may increasingly turn toward China. It will remain stalwart member of the EU and NATO, but why should it support its various European allies next time they’re in a pinch? And why should it pay heed to European allies’ calls for it to reverse its participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which it joined last year?

The Belt and Road, China’s vast global infrastructure program, involves investments and constructions in a range of countries, primarily developing countries. Italy and China have, however, been deepening their cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative and beyond; last year, a police cooperation program saw Chinese police officers patrol the streets of Rome and Milan.

And why should Italy keep its some 6,000 troops on foreign missions, troops who lead and make up large parts of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and NATO’s forces in Kosovo, soldiers who help defend Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, and sailors who participate in the EU’s mission combating Somali piracy and who police the western Mediterranean for the benefit not just of Italy but the rest of Europe, too?

La maledizione!cries Rigoletto, the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera. La maledizione—the curse—sometimes seems to be Italy’s destiny. EU membership has been mostly good for Italy. Its economy has been propelled upward by the single market and the euro, and its citizens have benefited enormously from free movement—some 2.7 million Italians currently live in other EU member states. And Italians appreciate the alliance: a 2018 Pew Research Center survey showed that 58 percent of Italians have a favorable view of the EU, somewhat lower than the EU median of 62 percent but far higher than Greece’s 37 percent. On March 13, the European Commission stepped in to at least help Italy’s economy, but so far no medical assistance from member states has materialized.

If Europe can’t send face masks, why should Italy keep its some 6,000 troops on foreign missions, troops who lead and make up large parts of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and NATO’s forces in Kosovo.

Indeed, with the current lack of solidarity, the EU might lose Italy’s affection—and China will happily continue to take advantage of the situation. That mustn’t happen.

Instead, the EU’s net beneficiaries (and low-coronavirus-count nations) such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Poland should send Italy face masks and whatever else the country might need. Indeed, would it be too much to ask those countries to fulfill their obligations under the EU’s solidarity scheme?

Otherwise, don’t expect Italian soldiers to come to the aid of European allies when Russia stages a surprise on a European country of its choice, or when a hostile state or its proxies knock out Poland’s power grid.

Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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