hey could have known. They should have prepared. They didn’t listen.
Europe, in early April, remains the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — where the outbreak, uncontrolled, morphed into catastrophe. Nearly 50,000 dead. More than 600,000 infected. And the devastation is far from over.
The world’s largest economy is paralyzed. The planet’s most open societies are frozen in fear — with the Continent’s treasured freedoms blamed for accelerating the spread of the most pernicious contagion to afflict humankind in more than 100 years.
It is a crisis with no end in sight. And it is one that Europe’s top leaders failed to see coming.
They failed to hear the warnings that containment would prove ineffective. They failed to heed experts who said no country could fight the virus on its own, failed to perceive that the world’s most advanced health care systems were at grave risk of being overwhelmed. They failed to understand that drastic measures would be needed until Italy — patient zero among EU member countries — frantically imposed travel restrictions that impeded European leaders’ own movements.
“I was crying because I knew the tsunami was ahead of us” — Agnès Buzyn, former French health minister
How Europe once again ended up as a killing field of infectious disease, as it did with plague in the 1300s and influenza a century ago, is less a blame game of individual finger-pointing than a story of collective complacency, and of dangerous overconfidence. Politicians seeking to prevent public panic reassured themselves into inaction — failing to build rapid testing capacity or to stockpile medical supplies over the two months following the virus’ emergence in China.
EU nations, despite their pledge to an ever-closer union, reacted selfishly and chaotically once the threat became evident. Health ministers — four of who quit or were fired during the crisis — bickered. Governments misled Brussels about their preparedness, then hoarded essential equipment and haphazardly shut their borders, disrupting commerce and stranding citizens.
The European Commission, which has limited power over health matters, sensed danger in January but didn’t convey real urgency until March. And EU leaders lost a crucial week, perhaps longer, focused on preventing a renewed migration crisis at the Turkish border, even as a crisis of far more gargantuan scale had already begun killing dozens of EU citizens in northern Italy.
Outside the EU, the United Kingdom and the United States — once reliable leaders of any response to a global emergency — injected added confusion and unpredictability, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to show Britain would chart its own path and President Donald Trump first denied the virus posed any danger, then blindsided the EU with a unilateral travel ban.
Leaders insist a time will come for lessons learned, that no one could have predicted the scope of the outbreak or the drastic scale of the needed response. But in January, when no one in Europe had yet died of COVID-19, there was still a chance to listen to warnings and recall the lessons of past outbreaks, including a 2015 eruption of MERS — caused by another deadly coronavirus — in South Korea that caused 186 cases and 38 deaths, with estimated damage of $8.5 billion after a limited two-week quarantine.
This account — of how and why those lessons weren’t heard — is based on reporting by POLITICO journalists across Europe, in the U.K. and the U.S., including interviews with senior EU and national political officials, ministers, diplomats, lawmakers, public health authorities and crisis managers.
Sunny skies, dark warnings
ne month before Italy’s first COVID-19 death, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took the main stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos to deliver a speech about climate change and digitalization. It was January 22, a glittering sunny Wednesday in the Swiss Alps.
Von der Leyen, not yet two months in office, briefly mentioned efforts to end the civil war in Libya as an example of how Europeans wanted to live in a “stable neighborhood.” But even as she declared “we have learnt the importance to invest more in long-term stability and to prevent crises,” she did not say a word about the virus outbreak in China.
Later that afternoon, in the same Congress Hall, Richard Hatchett, who served as the top White House official on pandemic preparedness for U.S. President Barack Obama, issued a blunt warning. “China was unfortunate in that that’s where the epidemic started, but it is now a global problem,” he said. “This is not China’s problem. This is the world’s problem.”
Hatchett had worked on, or studied, the responses to nearly all of the major health epidemics of the last two decades — Nipah, SARS, MERS, flu, Ebola, Zika. He now heads the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international alliance that develops vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.
In Davos that day, Hatchett warned that political leaders and the public had noted the individual outbreaks over the years but failed to grasp the pattern and had still not made the necessary preparations.
“I think we know what we need to do. The question is whether we have the political will to do it and whether we choose to allocate the resources that are required,” Hatchett said. “Governments have to recognize that individual governments working by themselves will not be able to solve this problem. They have to pool their resources and pool their efforts.”
That very night, Chinese authorities announced that they were locking down Wuhan, cutting off all travel in and out of the city of 11 million where the virus originated. In Geneva that evening, an emergency meeting of the World Health Organization ended inconclusively, and the next day the agency’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced its experts were not yet ready to label the coronavirus as a public health emergency of international concern.
In Brussels and throughout Europe, the coronavirus was still perceived as a distant threat.
“I think it is only honest to admit that nobody expected that the dimensions of this outbreak would be such here in Europe,” Janez Lenarčič, the EU’s commissioner for crisis management told POLITICO in an interview. “Why? Because some previous experiences perhaps made people believe that this would not be so, so huge. For instance, SARS, if you remember, or MERS, or even Ebola — all of these previous outbreaks were either localized or they died out before they spread all over the world like this one.”
Two days after von der Leyen’s Davos speech, on January 24, France confirmed three cases of coronavirus in Europe — two in Paris and one in Bordeaux — all connected to recent travel to China. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) expressed confidence that EU countries were well-prepared to identify cases and treat patients.
Some experts now say there is reason to believe the virus had already begun circulating in Europe. And indeed some public health experts were already sounding an urgent alarm.
On January 26, four days after von der Leyen and Hatchett spoke in Davos, Tom Ingelsby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in the U.S., took to Twitter to urge world leaders to anticipate the worst.
“Global and national leaders should be looking ahead to what must be done to prepare for the possibility nCoV (novel coronavirus) can’t be contained, even as we continue to work as hard as possible to contain it in China and beyond,” Ingelsby wrote.
In addition to “crash vaccine development,” Ingelsby called for “urgent serology development programs” to figure out how many people had been exposed to the coronavirus and developed antibodies. He called for “massive expansion of diagnostics development capacity in China and around world,” for “rapid clinical trials for antivirals” and for “major expansion of personal protective equipment for health care workers.”
Other public health officials voiced little concern.
On January 27, Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s center for disease control, told the broadcaster ZDF in an interview that he saw “low danger” from the coronavirus. “We expect that single cases in different countries can occur,” Wieler said. “The chance for those single cases to then spread is at this point limited.”
n Europe and elsewhere leaders continued to move slowly, viewing the virus as a Chinese problem. They focused more on helping their own citizens return home amid the travel ban than on preparing for the possibility that the virus would spread.
On January 29, Lenarčič and the EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, held a news conference to announce that the Commission had activated its own internal crisis response mechanism. The event attracted little notice.
“Our press conference … took place in an almost empty press conference room, salle de presse, in the Berlaymont,” Lenarčič recalled in the interview. “All the media attention was devoted to the last session of the European Parliament where the U.K. parliamentarians were still participating for the very last time. Of course, I understand, and I understood then already, it was a highly emotional moment. It was a historical moment, but we kind of sensed a lack of interest for what we were saying.”
Lenarčič said that the Commission, given its limited powers and available information at the time, had shown the proper initiative.
“While nobody can say that one would be able to predict what is happening now, I can say that the Commission was awake; the Commission did sense the danger,” he said, adding: “There are some people nowadays in some places who claim that the Commission was asleep and that it didn’t react early and quickly. I don’t think this is correct. We were early.”
In a separate interview, Health Commissioner Kyriakides echoed his message: “We are dealing with a situation that is unprecedented, and the actions taken at each step in time were based on the evidence at that time… with lots of excellent scientific advice.”
“The virus was spreading under our nose without [us] realizing” — Herman Goossens, Belgian microbiologist
At times, officials struggled to make sense of a flood of inconsistent analyses, including more assessments from the World Health Organization and the EU’s own European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which is informed by national public health authorities, including in Berlin and Paris.
Even as the ECDC offered the reassuring assessment on January 22 that the likelihood for the virus to spread in Europe was “low,” there was a crucial caveat. “More epidemiological data is urgently needed to get a better understanding of this virus,” ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said.
“It came from various sides, a lot of analysis,” an EU diplomat who participated in many of the crisis meetings said. “I cannot comment on why there was not much sense of an urgency. I think it was because everybody thought it would remain a local thing in certain areas of the world and they didn’t want to spread panic.” The diplomat added: “I was aware of worst-case scenarios, which luckily is still not what we have.”
In an interview, Croatia’s ambassador to the EU, Irena Andrassy, who coordinated work on the pandemic for the Council presidency, said that one of her conclusions was a need for clearer data. “Even when the WHO said it was a global public health emergency, people said there was no data,” Andrassy said. “The question with this disease is when do you have the right data because it’s so hidden in a way.”
In some cases, officials who should have been focused on the outbreak were not.
On January 28, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of Croatia, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, had fired his health minister, Milan Kujundžić, who had become embroiled in a personal real estate scandal.
“Both as president of the Council of the European Union and as a country that, together with others, must be prepared to defend against this widespread coronavirus epidemic, it requires the full focus of the minister on these topics,” Plenković said, announcing the dismissal.
Kujundžić was one of four EU health ministers who would quit or be ousted during the crisis, including France’s highly regarded Agnès Buzyn, who stepped down in February to make a longshot bid for mayor of Paris with President Emmanuel Macron’s endorsement.
On January 31, Italy banned flights from China. Other EU countries, or their airlines, would follow.
Yet Italy’s outbreak is now believed to have started on January 25 or 26, from within the Schengen zone: A German businessman traveling in Italy who had contracted the virus the previous week in Munich is the latest person believed by public health experts to be Italy’s “patient zero.”
“The virus was spreading under our nose without [us] realizing,” said Herman Goossens, a Belgian microbiologist and coordinator of the EU’s Platform for European Preparedness Against emerging Epidemics. “I’m convinced that in Italy the virus was already spreading the second half of January, and later on also in other countries, but we simply didn’t test.”
Clueless about preparedness
n hindsight, Lenarčič and others admit there were critical gaps in the readiness of EU countries and that Brussels had virtually no sense of just how badly unprepared national governments were. Neither the EU nor the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control maintain statistics on national stockpiles of medical equipment. Even worse, many EU countries had no clue either.
The day after the WHO declared a public health emergency, technocrats from European capitals and EU agencies called into a Health Security Committee meeting to discuss the threat. Only four countries reported they might be short of personal protective equipment in an emergency.
Likewise, China’s unveiling of a 1,000-bed, pop-up hospital on February 4 — built in less than two weeks to deal with the overflow of patients needing intensive care — seemed not to make an impression on EU leaders.
“When we watched the image of the Chinese building 1,000-bed hospitals, it took time to understand that this was an important organizational measure to take as soon as possible,” said Walter Ricciardi, a public health expert advising the Italian government’s coronavirus response. “We realized that when we started seeing the people in our intensive care units and doctors overwhelmed.”
The Commission offered to help national systems get emergency supplies, but officials in Europe’s national capitals struggled to understand what they already had and what was needed.
“We never had, in fact, the clearest picture of the national level, because I think the member states didn’t have those figures,” said John Ryan, director of public health and crisis management at the European Commission’s health and food safety department, DG SANTE. “We had a moment of truth when we suddenly realized there was a huge problem.”
“The smaller member countries probably would have had a better idea of what supplies they had on hand: How many intensive care beds, how many staff and how much equipment and so on.”
Big countries faced a tougher counting challenge, especially if their public health care systems were controlled at the regional level. Ryan scrupulously avoided mentioning specific countries during an interview, but the decentralized health systems in Germany, Italy and Spain have clearly complicated those countries’ responses to COVID-19.
“This virus as you know spreads with great speed, so measures have to be taken” — Janez Lenarčič on February 10
The hiccups were primarily at the political level. Career civil servants who lived through SARS and swine flu know “more or less how to react,” said Ryan. “The challenge is that the ministers are changing on a much more regular basis.” While the experts recognized the need for unsexy investments like ICU beds and respirator stockpiles, politicians faced pressure to show short-term results.
On February 10, during a press conference showing off the EU’s coordinated crisis response center in Brussels, Lenarčič made an appeal for capitals to take the threat seriously.
“This is a serious danger for public health,” he said in reply to a reporter’s question. “This virus as you know spreads with great speed, so measures have to be taken.”
The message didn’t sink in among EU member countries. Just three days later, when the EU’s health ministers gathered in Brussels for a first emergency meeting on February 13, their resistance to taking coordinated action was on full display.
Health minister turnover
he meeting, held in response to pressure from a few capitals, including Rome and Paris, had taken some time to pull together.
Ministers’ meetings are organized and chaired by the presidency of the Council of the EU, held during the first half of 2020 by Croatia.
On January 29, Kyriakides, the EU’s health commissioner, had called on Zagreb to organize the gathering — but Croatian Prime Minister Plenković had just sacked his health minister, Kujundžić. It would take another two weeks for the new minister, Vili Beroš, to arrange the meeting in Brussels.
Kujundžić would be only the first health minister to leave in the middle of the crisis. Of the EU27 health ministers who joined the February 13 meeting, three are no longer in office today.
France’s Buzyn quit just three days later, to run for mayor of Paris after Macron’s original candidate dropped out following a sexting scandal. Buzyn had declined to run for a lesser local post weeks earlier, citing preparations for the coronavirus.
“I was crying,” Buzyn recalled of her departure from the health ministry, in an interview with Le Monde, “because I knew the tsunami was ahead of us.”
Dutch Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins stepped down on March 19, a day after collapsing at The Hague during a coronavirus debate in parliament.
And Romanian Health Minister Victor Costache resigned after just six months in office on March 26 following an apparent dispute with Prime Minister Ludovic Orban over testing strategy. Costache had promised a door-to-door testing service in Bucharest, even though there was no sign the country could deliver such a plan, local media reported.
At the February 13 meeting in Brussels, the ministers received reassurance about Europe’s capacity to test for the coronavirus — a key requisite for controlling outbreaks. Andrea Ammon, the ECDC director, told them that Europe had adequate lab capacity and that the EU’s containment strategy was working.
The real problem, they heard from the WHO’s emergencies chief, Mike Ryan, was Africa, which just had two labs for the entire continent — with a population three times bigger than Europe’s.
In a subsequent interview, Ammon said her remarks referred only to the capacity of laboratories to conduct tests — without taking into account the shortage of testing supplies that would become apparent when demand shot up a few weeks later.
“I think there are a number of lessons that will have to be learned from this,” Ammon said. “And one of them is that we also look into how we cater for such a surge capacity.”
For a week, European capitals watched as Italy took steps that seemed extreme at the time in an ultimately futile bid to hold back infections from the rest of the Continent.
Ammon did warn the health ministers that they needed to ensure they had adequate supplies of protective equipment and ICU beds. After all, it was the middle of flu season, when European hospitals are at their busiest, and it could be hard to tell the difference between the respiratory ailments.
The ECDC was created after the 2003 SARS outbreak to help the EU better handle such crises. But asked if, in hindsight, countries had failed to heed specific warnings that would have averted the current situation, Ammon replied: “I’m not sure that there is anything that really would have prevented this.”
Even as the health ministers were being reassured about testing capacity, the virus moved unnoticed on its deadly course. On February 13, the same day they gathered in Brussels, a 69-year-old man who had recently traveled to Nepal died of pneumonia in Spain’s Valencia region.
It would take nearly three weeks for authorities to identify the root cause of his demise. The man was recorded as the country’s first COVID-19 death after a posthumous test on March 3.
Carnival week avalanche
n China, the lockdown of Wuhan started just two days before the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations, reflecting fear among government officials that holiday travelers would spread the virus.
But a month later, there was no similar worry as schools across Europe closed for Carnival week on Friday February 21, and many families headed for annual ski vacations. In retrospect, it would be the start of an avalanche of infections, spread person to person, throughout the Continent.
The first coronavirus death in northern Italy occurred that Friday night. The second took place the next day. Meanwhile, across the EU, flights filled up and cars clogged the motorways.
Numerous clusters of coronavirus outbreaks would later be traced to ski resorts, including in the Austrian town of Ischgl, just over the Tyrolean Alps from Davos.
For a week, European capitals watched as Italy took steps that seemed extreme at the time in an ultimately futile bid to hold back infections from the rest of the Continent.
On February 23, a Sunday, 11 Lombardy towns grappling with more than one infection went under near-quarantine. Ad hoc travel restrictions started cropping up: Austrian authorities stopped a train from Venice to Munich that night to investigate two suspected cases, and police cordoned off Lyon’s bus station on Monday after the driver of a coach from Milan showed potential COVID-19 symptoms.
By Monday February 24, Lenarčič and Kyriakides were being bombarded with questions about Italy and the integrity of the Schengen zone. Those hadn’t been on the agenda when they first planned an announcement from the Berlaymont’s VIP Corner studio: €114 million to the World Health Organization and €15 million for African testing labs.
Commission aides customarily, on the condition of anonymity, elaborate on and spin their bosses’ remarks after such press conferences. In this case, they pleaded with reporters to focus on the fast mobilization of funds — it took just a week — for weaker health systems that cannot test for the coronavirus.
“The only people who are not sick are the Africans!” protested a reporter, only to be admonished by a Commission aide that it’s a “global story.”
When pressed, another aide acknowledged that EU health systems may not be ready either, adding that the Commission had been pushing hard for days to get capitals to submit an assessment of their hospital capacity.
The next day, health ministers from Austria, Italy, France, Slovenia, Switzerland, Germany and Croatia arrived in Rome. They agreed that closing borders would be “disproportionate and ineffective at this time,” and that big events shouldn’t be automatically canceled.
Ricciardi, the adviser to the Italian government, who was present at the meeting, said that with some exceptions, including Germany and France, he had the strong sense that, at least initially, the others thought “the problem was Italy, you know — not the virus.”
That wasn’t the message from Ammon during a visit to Rome on February 26. “It could have happened anywhere,” she said at a press conference with Kyriakides, Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza and the WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge.
Kyriakides called the outbreak a “test case for existing global emergency response mechanisms as well as for our cooperation within the EU.”
Kluge argued there was “no need to panic.”
“We take the virus and the situation very seriously,” he said. “At the same time, we should also remember that four out of five patients have mild symptoms and recover.”
Kluge stressed that “hand hygiene is very important,” reminding people to cough into their elbows.
At the end of the conference, the officials stood up and shook hands, as reporters and others crowded around them.
Geopolitical business as usual
s health officials were speaking in Rome, von der Leyen was preparing to lead most of her College of Commissioners on a trip to Addis Ababa to meet with counterparts at the African Union — a top priority in her push to lead a more “geopolitical” Commission.
On February 26, before flying out, the Commission president delivered an update about the coronavirus during the weekly College meeting. Kyriakides, the health commissioner, was in Rome. Lenarčič was in Burkina Faso.
Von der Leyen reported that the infection risk was still considered “low to moderate” in the EU, with only 275 confirmed coronavirus cases in Europe, and eight deaths, most of them elderly people. The main concern about the Carnival vacation week was regarding Commission staff who might visit high-risk areas in Italy and were told to telework upon return to Brussels.
With Lenarčič away, the Secretary-General Ilze Juhansone, the Commission’s top civil servant, briefed the College on the crisis response effort.
The effort was still focused heavily outside the EU — “providing assistance to third countries, sending protective equipment in response to the appeal by the Chinese authorities, coordinating member countries’ preparatory activities, and planning contingency measures for European industry,” she said, according to minutes of the meeting.
The big worry in Europe was about the secondary effects of a slowdown in the Chinese economy. Paolo Gentiloni, the commissioner for economic affairs, noted that during the SARS outbreak in 2002, China had accounted for 4 percent of the world economy, a number that had since grown to 19 percent.
“The biggest alarm for us in the Commission came at the end of February when Italy requested assistance” — Janez Lenarčič, European commissioner for crisis management
The concern was particularly acute in Italy, which was worried that other countries would now do to Italy what Italy had done to China: shut off flights to and from the country, killing its tourism industry.
“If politicians continue to fuel alarmism and, for example, the U.S decides to halt flights to Italy, it will end up in an economic disaster,” Paolo Crepet, a prominent psychiatrist, warned in an interview to La7 television.
Then, as commissioners were meeting with the African Union in Ethiopia, another urgent crisis materialized. After more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that he would no longer stop asylum seekers from trying to cross into the EU. Ankara quickly allowed thousands of migrants to mass along the border with Greece.
As the commissioners arrived back in Brussels on Friday, February 28, the fears of a renewed migrant crisis overshadowed the worsening situation in northern Italy, even as hospitals there were becoming overwhelmed and officials began to fear a shortage of supplies.
That same day, Rome activated the EU’s “civil protection mechanism” to request face masks and other personal protective equipment. The mechanism, coordinated by the Commission, relies on EU countries to volunteer help.
For officials monitoring the crisis response, Rome’s admission that it was in trouble was jarring. Even scarier, though, was the reaction from the other 26 EU countries: silence. With EU capitals now beginning to panic about their own vulnerability, none of them stepped forward to help.
“The biggest alarm for us in the Commission came at the end of February when Italy requested assistance,” Lenarčič said. “There was no response. All alarm bells started to ring. We then realized what nobody told us before that there is a general shortage throughout Europe of personal protective equipment.”
He added, “This was, I think, the crunch moment that there is a problem in Europe’s ability to face the challenge.”
Still, reactions were slow. “Those two weeks really were kind of a moment where everybody started to see this a serious epidemic and health threat,” the senior ambassador said of the holiday week and the one that followed. “But it took another week, I think, before it really becomes obvious, where people started showing signs of being afraid.”
In hindsight, there is consensus among officials on one point: the return from Carnival week ski holidays in early March was “really this distributor for cases in Europe,” Ammon said. “That was where we saw, ‘Okay, now we have to really abandon this idea that we can contain this. We have to now go into measures that help us to support the health care systems to cope with this.’”
Fighting the last war
n Monday, March 2, von der Leyen went to the Commission’s emergency coordination center for a news conference to announce the creation of a coronavirus emergency response group. Surrounded by her team, the Commission president projected calm authority as she spent more than half an hour answering questions.
That same Monday, the Croatian presidency pushed the Council’s Integrated Political Crisis Response mechanism to full activation mode, the highest level of emergency cooperation among EU countries.
Publicly, at least, European leaders were still suggesting the virus was more of an external threat. France, Germany and the U.K., for instance, announced €5 million in aid, including laboratory equipment and protective gear, for Iran, to be delivered by the WHO.
Behind the scenes, however, in capitals across Europe, further panic was setting in, as national leaders watched Italian hospitals overwhelmed and realized they could be next.
That urgency does not seem to have been translated to Brussels, where the EU’s senior leadership — von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel and Parliament President David Sassoli — were more focused on the Turkish border.
They had good reason to be worried about the situation there. The 2015 migration crisis had fueled a nationalist backlash and spread of Euroskepticism that proved far more traumatic for the EU than outbreaks like SARS or Ebola.
And the bloc’s failure to agree on an overhaul of the asylum rules, the so-called Dublin regulation, was perhaps the most glaring piece of unfinished business left behind by the former leadership team.
On Tuesday, March 3, the trio of EU presidents flew on a charter flight to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for a tour of the border and a joint show of force. From there, von der Leyen and Michel went to Bulgaria to see the border there. Von der Leyen returned to Brussels, while Michel went to Ankara to meet Erdoğan.
There were also other, structural, reasons for Brussels to view the border as a higher priority than the epidemic starting to rage in Italy.
While health issues overwhelmingly remain the legal responsibility of national governments, the EU institutions have a direct role in helping to manage the Schengen Common Travel Area, and in protecting the EU’s external borders via Frontex, the border protection agency.
“The situation with the Turkish border drew all the attention,” a senior EU official said. “Everybody was focused on that. So we had to make choices.”
Even as the presidents were in Greece, the coronavirus, which respects no borders, was racing invisibly across Europe, where it would put EU solidarity to a far greater test.
On March 3, the French government announced that it was taking control of production of personal protective equipment, requisitioning face masks and capping the price of sanitizing gel. Those moves set off a domino effect that prompted Germany to expand a ban on exports of such equipment, barring sales even to fellow EU countries.
With the bloc’s two largest and richest members signaling plans to go on their own, other countries quickly followed suit.
Three days, later at an emergency meeting in Brussels, EU health ministers squabbled openly about access to protective equipment, with Germany’s export ban a major focus of criticism.
The German health minister, Jens Spahn, defended Berlin’s approach, noting that Germany along with Italy and France had the most infections. Spahn also criticized the EU as a whole for not acting quickly enough. Other ministers complained that they were learning about other countries’ policy changes in the press.
“We need to coordinate our decisions when, at a certain time, we want to go back to normal — because otherwise, we will undermine the effectiveness of the tough measures we took” — Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president
Amid the bickering, a few crucial new points emerged, including the first suggestion by Ammon, the head of the ECDC, that national health systems should look to ramp up capacity, such as the number of beds, for an expected surge in cases.
The ECDC’s March 2 assessment seriously contemplated implications of uncontrolled spread around the bloc for the first time and upgraded the risk to health systems as “moderate to high.”
Despite warnings like this one, the disjointed approach would only get worse, as the coronavirus hit the Council itself. After a Council staffer tested positive, Andrassy, the Croatian ambassador, went into protective quarantine.
(In a sign of Belgium’s own lack of preparedness, Council officials said employees believed to be at risk of infection were unable to get tested. One diplomat in the room with the confirmed case was told by her doctor to go to the emergency room — not the standard advice. Once there, the hospital refused to test her because she didn’t have respiratory symptoms, though she had other problems associated with COVID-19.)
EU self-protection mechanism
cross Europe, governments were still reluctant to disrupt their economies or cultural events to combat the virus.
On Sunday, March 8, activists took to streets around Spain for major Women’s Day marches. Beyond pleading with people not to attend if they had COVID-19 symptoms, the left-wing government did not discourage the protests. High-profile attendees included Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, Equality Minister Irene Montero and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez. All three would later test positive for the virus.
Officials in Brussels were also slow to sound the alarm.
On Monday, March 9, von der Leyen marked her 100th day in office with a news conference that focused heavily on the situation along the Turkish border. Indeed, at that point she was planning to return to Greece later in the week — a trip she would be forced to cancel because it had become too dangerous, not because of violence on the border, but because of the virus.
In a written reply to a question from POLITICO, von der Leyen pointed to her creation of the emergency coronavirus response team on March 2 as a sign that the EU reacted faster than national capitals, and focused earlier than many news reporters.
“At the time, in many member states, the coronavirus was still a topic for health ministers only,” she wrote. “I also remember that most of the questions from journalists on this day weren’t about coronavirus but the situation on the Greek-Turkish border.”
If von der Leyen and Michel were focused on migration, it’s largely because that’s what their bosses — the EU’s 27 heads of state and government — wanted.
“All of the leaders were very demanding, very much in favor of the president being active on the ground,” the senior EU official said. “There was no criticism — why are you going there?”
On the evening of March 9, after the Commission president’s news conference, Erdoğan visited Brussels for a meeting with von der Leyen and Michel. The two sides agreed to review the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, easing the tension over the border, at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, the reluctance of other EU countries to help Italy, first reported in POLITICO, was starting to concentrate minds in Brussels. On March 10, the Italian ambassador, Maurizio Massari, published a scathing op-ed in POLITICO, complaining that greater solidarity was in order.
That morning, von der Leyen said she chaired a meeting of the emergency response team and also called Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to ask about visiting Rome. But the country’s toughened travel ban made such a trip impossible. “He had concerns, because of the restrictions, which were also tightened for Rome,” she wrote in her written reply.
Meanwhile, the in-fighting among health ministers had led Michel to call a rare videoconference of EU heads of state and government. During the call, on the afternoon of March 10, the leaders agreed to work on four “pillars” outlined by Michel: containing the virus; ensuring EU countries had sufficient medical equipment; addressing social-economic consequences; and supporting research toward medical treatments and a vaccine.
Meeting by remote put Michel in an unusually assertive position, without the need to negotiate formal conclusions in advance or to wrangle over precise wording as often happens when the 27 gather in person. The leaders readily committed to supporting his pillars, as well as to a plan by von der Leyen to redirect €7.5 billion in unused EU structural funds as a first step toward helping countries respond to the crisis.
“We emphasized the need to work together and to do everything necessary and to act swiftly,” Michel said at a news conference. But over the next days, as the danger escalated, the statement of solidarity would prove hollow.
Capitals imposed their own border restrictions, threatening to render the Common Travel Area meaningless. Once again, Germany, the bloc’s de facto leader, was an instigator as intensified checks on its southern border signaled to other EU countries that they, too, should raise barriers.
The next night, on March 11, von der Leyen canceled her plan to return to Greece.
“Wednesday night, the Greek government set the coronavirus-alert for the whole of Greece on ‘high,’ and the Italian government announced a lockdown of all shops,” the president told POLITICO in her written reply. “That’s why we decided to postpone the trip to Greece, which was a good decision.”
On Thursday, March 12, EU leaders woke up to mayhem. Trump, whose erratic leadership has irked them from the moment he took office, had unleashed chaos at European airports with an overnight announcement that the U.S. would ban travelers from the EU for 30 days. Adding to the confusion, Trump had inexplicably exempted Ireland and the U.K.
“We had no indication whatsoever the United States was going to act as they had,” a senior EU official said. “Nobody understood at first why Ireland and the U.K. were exempt from the travel ban. That was not understandable, not logical.”
EU leaders issued a joint statement decrying the lack of consultation by the U.S., but the damage was done. Europe’s top leaders went into damage control mode — but their efforts were not well coordinated.
The ECDC announced that containing the virus was “no longer feasible” and urged Europe to follow the Italian playbook: social distancing, school closures and event cancellations. The agency pointed to modeling studies from China suggesting that country could have reduced the spread of the virus even further if such policies had been adopted weeks earlier.
Yet hours later, French President Emmanuel Macron went on national TV to announce only half-measures in that direction, insisting that France wasn’t abandoning its efforts to contain COVID-19.
Nurseries, schools and universities would close the following Monday, he said. Older people ought to stay home and companies should urge telework if possible — but the government did not impose rules. Sunday’s local elections, Macron added, would proceed.
Holding a vote went against the advice of Macron’s own lead candidate in those elections, former Health Minister Buzyn, who suspended her campaign activities after the vote — not because of her dismal third-place showing in Paris, but because she didn’t want to further spread the virus.
“From the start, I only thought of one thing: the coronavirus. We should have stopped everything, it was a masquerade,” she said, according to Le Monde. “I was scared at every meeting. I lived this campaign in a dissociated way.”
Buzyn told the paper that she had first advised Macron to cancel the elections on January 30 — more than two weeks before she agreed to run in them — only to be overruled by other government officials, including Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, who argued that there wasn’t enough of a scientific consensus.
Behind the scenes, Macron’s team worried about the optics of the president postponing the vote, given predictions that his party would fare poorly at the polls.
“It wasn’t more dangerous to go buy your croissant than to go vote, so if we didn’t shut down bakeries why would we postpone elections?” was the reasoning at the time, according to one government aide.
In Brussels, on the same Thursday evening that Macron put France on partial lockdown, Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès emerged from a fractious meeting with the country’s national security council.
Flemish politicians were resisting the idea of closing schools, but Francophone lawmakers ultimately prevailed in getting Belgium to follow in France’s footsteps and go a step further, ordering the closure of restaurants and bars beginning on Saturday. In hindsight, that delay gave the virus one last Friday night to spread via “lockdown parties.”
he weekend after Brussels’ semi-shutdown, von der Leyen and her core team spent 28 hours straight in her 13th floor executive suite. Their task: finalizing guidelines on how to manage the internal borders as well as a plan to bar nonessential travelers from outside the EU for at least 30 days.
They hoped the external ban would help convince capitals to lift restrictions and voluntarily follow the Commission’s approach, in an effort to avert breakdowns in the flow of commercial goods, including food and medicine.
With restaurants closed, the spouse of one of von der Leyen’s advisers delivered homemade food.
Von der Leyen unveiled her guidelines on Monday, March 16. On Tuesday, Michel convened another videoconference and the EU’s 27 leaders quickly endorsed the Commission’s proposal.
Bowing to the virus they could not stop, the leaders also announced that their regular March summit, scheduled for the following week, would be scrapped in favor of another teleconference. Having imposed travel restrictions, banned large gatherings and ordered citizens to stay home and businesses to close, the EU’s top leaders could hardly disobey their own rules.
Some leaders were also personally at risk. Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez was forced to isolate after his wife tested positive. Michel himself spent time working at home after the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, announced he was infected.
Belgium imposed a full lockdown starting at noon on March 18, and the European Quarter in Brussels became a ghost town.
Nearly two months earlier, in Davos, Richard Hatchett had warned that such drastic quarantining measures could be necessary.
“One thing that’s important to understand,” he said, “is that when you don’t have treatments and you don’t have vaccines, non-pharmaceutical interventions are literally the only thing that you have. And it’s a combination of isolation, containment, infection prevention and control.”
‘Back to normal’
he following week, on March 26, von der Leyen addressed a virtually empty hemicycle as the European Parliament held unprecedented online votes to approve fast cash for the coronavirus response. While some of the politicians responding to the pandemic have resisted pointing fingers until after the crisis is over, the Commission president let it rip.
“When Europe really needed an all-for-one-spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response,” she said, a clear reference to the border closures and export bans. “When Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair weather Union, too many refused to share their umbrella.”
Von der Leyen credited the Commission’s “extraordinary measures” for having helped improve the situation — which had included the threat of infringement proceedings to get Germany to drop its export ban. She pointed to French patients being treated in German hospitals and the newly open flows of gloves and masks toward Italy as signs of rekindled solidarity in the field of public health.
During a videoconference that evening, the EU’s national leaders seemed to take von der Leyen’s scolding to heart, and agreed that the Commission should begin drawing up a strategy for a coordinated exit from the crisis — to avoid a repeat of the chaos that occurred at its beginning.
“We need to coordinate our decisions when, at a certain time, we want to go back to normal — because otherwise, we will undermine the effectiveness of the tough measures we took,” von der Leyen said, accepting the mission.
But the leaders’ virtual summit was upended by new acrimony, over how to manage the as yet incalculable economic damage — with Conte and Sánchez, the leaders of the hardest hit countries, demanding a joint debt instrument branded as “corona bonds.” Germany, the Netherlands and others opposed the idea. Michel salvaged the meeting with a plan to keep all options on the table.
The fight, still not resolved, has reopened bitter divisions from the eurozone debt crisis — a return to a familiar feud over financial policy but this time overshadowed by the still rising death toll, and still deep anxiety over when the recovery will start and if vaccines and effective treatments will be found. News of the British prime minister in intensive care has served as a stark reminder that European leaders remain as vulnerable as their constituents.
Statistics suggest the United States may ultimately be hit hardest, having reacted even more slowly than Europe, and with deep societal divisions that created obstacles to the unity of purpose in countries like Germany that have fared relatively better.
But it is also clear that untold lives were lost because Europe did not react as fast and forcefully with lockdown measures as China, or as aggressively with testing as South Korea, which they had learned from the traumatic experience of the 2015 MERS outbreak.
Still, the EU has not developed any immunity to in-fighting, and it is unclear the lessons of the initial chaotic response will be heeded. Before the Commission managed to unfurl its “roadmap to exit,” Austria, Denmark the Czech Republic showed they were charting their own courses with dates for loosening restrictions. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz cast it as a “resurrection after Easter.”
Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de la Baume, Lili Bayer, Elisa Braun, Hans von der Burchard, Jillian Deutsch, Ashleigh Furlong, Cristina Gallardo, Cristina Gonzalez, Matthew Karnitschnig, Judith Mischke, Barbara Moens, Rym Momtaz, Carmen Paun, Josh Posaner, Eline Schaart, Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli, Zosia Wanat and Zia Weise contributed reporting.
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