The World

The Coronavirus Could Destroy the EU

The union was already reeling from crisis after crisis. It may not survive this one.

Cars and trucks backed up on a highway underneath a sign that reads "Budapest."
The A4 motorway toward Hungary, before the Nickelsdorf/Hegyeshalom border between Austria and Hungary, on March 14. Alex Halada/Getty Images

By midday March 18, the line of traffic at the border between Austria and Hungary ran bumper-to-bumper for 18 miles. Citizens of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Ukraine who, until the coronavirus outbreak, had been living and working in Germany and Austria were heeding their governments’ calls to come home as businesses closed and work dried up. All roads southeast lead through Hungary. The problem: Two days prior, Hungary’s far-right populist government had closed its borders to outsiders.

As the Red Cross handed out bottled water to stranded families, the Austrian and Hungarian interior ministers worked to hammer out a solution over the phone. Hours passed, and the traffic continued to grow. By nightfall, the trail of cars extended some 37 miles into Austria. The break came at 9 p.m. when the Hungarian government created a so-called humanitarian corridor, allowing those trapped in Austria to traverse Hungary without stopping. The border opened, and traffic began to flow. At 5 a.m. the following day, the Hungarians shut the border again. Predictably, at noon March 19, Austrian authorities were dealing with another 18 miles of traffic.

Scenes such as this represent an existential threat to the European Union. Amid a global pandemic, there are few Europeans to be found. Containing the coronavirus has resulted in a return to nation-level politics and closed borders inside the 26-nation Schengen Area, within which border checks are supposed to be nonexistent. Governments are allowed to reinstitute them in the event of a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”—France did so during the 2015 refugee crisis and after the November 2015 Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, for example—but the present scale of closures is unprecedented.

Since March 11, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Estonia, Norway, Portugal, and Spain have all reimposed border controls on some or all of their frontiers. The Schengen Area’s fracturing is undermining the European economy and weakening its internal market as frontier workers—those who live in one EU country but work in another—find themselves shut out. Four out of every five care workers employed in Austria have their permanent residence in either Slovakia or Romania. Without Bulgarian, Romanian, and Polish farm laborers, fruit may be left to rot in British fields.

It is true that European institutions have succeeded in avoiding financial catastrophe. On March 18, the European Central Bank unveiled its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program: a “whatever-it-takes” $808 billion fiscal stimulus package that allows the ECB to buy up public and private sector debt, rescuing companies and governments on the edge of bankruptcy. “There are no limits” to the ECB’s commitment, its director Christine Lagarde said on March 19. The next morning, the French and German stock markets opened up 5.5 and 6 points respectively.

Yet Brussels has struggled to open up Europe’s internal borders and foster internal cooperation. On March 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a 30-day ban on all but essential entry into the Schengen Area for nonresidents. That same day, Hungary slammed its own gates shut. Von der Leyen also moved to limit the export of medical equipment outside Europe to encourage EU states to share vital supplies with one another, but instead it has been authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Cuba who have scored vital propaganda victories by sending doctors, face masks, and other medical aid to virus-stricken Italy.

The coronavirus has exposed all the EU’s underlying weaknesses. Nowhere is this clearer than Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has not only restricted entry to tourists and other nonessential travelers. In recent days, one non-Hungarian with legal residency in the country trying to reenter Hungary by air was reportedly asked by border police to sign documents that read: “I represent a real, immediate, and serious danger to Hungary’s public policy, public security, national security, and public health, and therefore I am denied entry into Hungary and take note of that decision, as well as the fact that I have no right of appeal.”

Orbán is not allowing a good crisis to go to waste, using this national emergency as a cover to abolish what remains of Hungarian democracy. Since 2010, Orbán has consolidated control over previously independent institutions like the press and judiciary, strangled Hungary’s civil society, abused EU farm subsidies, and lavished money on white elephant soccer stadiums while Hungary’s health care system starves. Now, Orbán is seeking to institute an “enabling act” that would establish government by decree, suspending Parliament and granting him dictatorial powers. Showing characteristic bravery on Monday, Brussels declined to comment on Orbán’s pursuit of one-man, one-party rule.

At least Brussels seems aware of its shortcomings. “It is vital that the EU shows it is a Union that protects and that solidarity is not an empty phrase,” its foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said Monday. Thoughts are already turning, if not to tomorrow, then the day after that, as heads of government discuss “the measures necessary to get back to a normal functioning of our societies and to sustainable growth, drawing all lessons from the crisis” via videoconference. This may include the creation of “a true European Crisis Management Centre,” Politico reports, and so-called green lanes that will allow freight traffic to move more freely between European states.

But Europe’s vainglorious national leaders may have other ideas. Discussing Europe’s future is like opening a Pandora’s box of competing and irreconcilable master plans. The Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark are known to want a leaner EU: fewer regulations and a smaller executive, bureaucracy, and budget. French President Emmanuel Macron’s ideas for an EU “New Deal” including a “Green Deal,” “digital transformation,” and a European Security Council—a program that had previously failed to gain support within the EU, especially from its closest partner, Germany—are being dusted off as we speak.

Since 2008, the EU has careened from one crisis to the next—a global recession, its own eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, and Brexit—finding ways to survive while avoiding fundamental questions about what its future holds. It wasn’t in the healthiest condition going into this pandemic. Budget talks broke down at the end of February, and though accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia were agreed to Tuesday, further EU expansion won’t happen within the next 10 years. And now the coronavirus poses what may be the most severe stress test yet.

The longer borders stay closed, the greater the challenge to Europe as an idea that cannot be divided.