The world’s news headlines have been horrifying: Vital equipment is in short supply, forcing doctors to make battlefield decisions about who lives and who dies; long lines of sick people wait in vain for a test or a hospital bed; empty businesses, stores, bars and restaurants are bringing local economies the world over to a grinding halt; and there has been a grim accounting of which countries are hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the US surging ahead of 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 coronavirus.
As of yesterday, Italy had reported 115,242 confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 13,915 Italians, mostly in the northern Lombardy region, had so far died of the coronavirus.
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 EU 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 countries have appeared to challenge Italy’s economic decisions, and seem to care more about knowing how Italy plans to pay back debts than they do about the death toll and economic downturn.
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 eurozone can weather — and ultimately rebound from — the crisis.
This requires abandoning habitual reliance on an outdated governance model predicated on the absence of any common financial resources in a monetary union.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 — would be much higher than the price of breaking 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 countries 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 that might possibly ease 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 eurozone itself on the table.
With US President Donald Trump’s administration retreating from the post-war transatlantic alliance, the EU has been given the chance to make good on its expressed commitment to values, rights and multilateral cooperation, and assert itself as a global leader.
However, it has not risen to the challenge. While Europe’s future 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 pandemic without a meaningful response. All countries and economies in the eurozone would suffer as a result.
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 euros (US$1.08 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. 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 that many others will follow that example and offer a helping hand to the areas hit hardest 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 that the Open Society Foundations plan to launch in the coming days in response to the pandemic.
Alexander Soros is deputy chairman of the Open Society Foundations.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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