The headlines are horrifying. Shortages of vital equipment forcing doctors to make battlefield decisions about who lives and who dies. Long lines of sick people waiting in vain for a test or a hospital bed. Empty businesses, stores, bars, and restaurants bringing local economies the world over to a grinding halt. And a grim accounting of which countres are hardest hit by the COVID-19 coronavirus, with the United States now surging ahead – recording nearly 61,000 more confirmed cases than China, home to the original outbreak.
In Europe, the pandemic has hit especially hard in Italy, which has been on national lockdown since March 9 in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. As of March 30, Italy has reported nearly 98,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. More than 10,700 Italians, mostly in the northern Lombardy region, have died of the disease so far. Milan, the regional capital, is more than a mainstay of Italy’s economy. The once bustling city is inextricably linked to the European project and is a crucial driver of the European economy as a whole.
Yet, as the death toll rises and the region sees transmission rates higher than anywhere else on the continent, the European Union and its member states have been slow to step up in any meaningful way and show solidarity with their ailing neighbor. Instead, EU member states have closed borders and turned inward. Italy’s plight was made worse by the border closures, which cut off much-needed supplies and medical equipment.
Governments have engaged in petty squabbles, appearing more concerned about their own economic advantage. Representatives of some northern European states have appeared to challenge Italy’s recent economic decisions, and to care more about knowing how Italy would manage to pay back debts than they do about the death toll and economic downturn.
As a result, at a time when the continent, and indeed the entire world, is facing public-health and economic crises of historic proportions, Europe is a house divided, in danger of possible territorial dissolution. If Brexit united the remaining 27 member states and removed the specter of exit from the European arena, the coronavirus has put it back on the agenda.
The EU has a responsibility to its member states and its people to use any and all financial instruments at its disposal, or to create new ones, to ensure that Italy and the Union as a whole can weather – and ultimately rebound from – this crisis. That requires abandoning habitual reliance on an outdated governance model predicated on the absence of any common financial resources in a monetary union. If Italy fails, the price for the European economy – indeed, for the European project itself – will be much higher than the price of violating one fiscal rule or another during a time of grave peril.
Before last week’s European Council virtual summit, a group of nine European countries, including southern states such as Portugal and Slovenia, called for a Eurobond and the mutualization of common debt. Europe’s financial institutions were tasked at the summit with making proposals, possibly easing the pressure on individual heads of government (most of whom are preoccupied with domestic opposition). At the same time, some of Italy’s most authoritarian and extreme political figures seized the moment to rally against the EU and put an Italian exit from the euro and the Union itself on the table.
With the United States under its current administration retreating from the post-war transatlantic alliance, the EU was given the opportunity to make good on its expressed commitment to values, rights, and multilateral cooperation, and assert itself as a global leader. It has not risen to the challenge. While Europe’s future today looks bleak, it is not too late for European institutions and governments to change course. The EU cannot afford to lose Italy or to go through the crisis without a meaningful response. All countries and economies in the bloc would suffer as a consequence.
My father, George Soros, lived through some of the most heinous crimes of the past century, and emerged from that experience with a deep and abiding belief in the necessity of the European project. I am proud of his long record of using his philanthropic institutions to promote a better tomorrow for Europe and the world.
That is why it should be no surprise that the organization he founded, the Open Society Foundations, is stepping in to help Italy at this crucial moment by pledging €1 million to the city of Milan to support the hard work of aiding its most vulnerable and rebuilding its economy, health, and spirit in the months ahead.
To be sure, some EU countries – with some delays – have also sent medical supplies, and many Italians have donated to the national effort to counter the crisis. And just days after getting the nod to begin EU membership talks, Albania displayed real European solidarity by dispatching a 30-strong contingent of doctors to northern Italy. I hope many others will follow that example and offer a helping hand to the areas hardest hit by COVID-19. Coming on the heels of a similar gift to the city of Budapest, such a helping hand is one of a series of interventions the Open Society Foundations will be launching in the coming days in response to this crisis.
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