The coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, has affected many countries, but there are not many of them as affected as Italy has been. To this date (23.05.2020) Italy has seen over 225,000 cases and over 32,000 deaths. On a country level, the measures that were taken by the Italian government took time to be implemented by the people, unlike many successful Asian countries. This could be linked to the suspicion and mistrust between the government and the people of Italy. Italy has one of the worst cases of corruption and populism compared to its’ other Western European peers. All of this has meant that how the European Union and others respond to the Italian crisis is more important than ever for Italian democracy and their belief in liberal institutions.
On top of the underlying democratic problems of Italy, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused nation states to impose new restrictions within the European Union. This has deeply damaged the solidarity within the Union, leading to a “Heartfelt apology” issued by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She rightfully acknowledged that a liberal, international organization did not provide the aid that was expected from it. However, there is a critical point that must be made here: while Europe and the wider world were experiencing right-wing, populist waves, these liberal institutions such as the European Union and World Health Organization did not have the powers to deal with this crisis effectively. Thus, the populists who are depriving these institutions of power, are blaming these institutions for the lack of cooperation, in effect they are exasperating the problem themselves yet blaming the institutions they helped weaken or prevented from getting stronger.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that these institutions have not done anything wrong, European Union’s continuing failure to adopt an effective economic package on this issue is the most striking example, however this failure can be traced back to the populist politicians or those who try to appease them. For example, the so-called “corona bonds” that Italy has pushed for in order to share the debt created by the Covid-19 pandemic, has been slowed down in part by member states, especially the Netherlands. Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte is right when he says “If we do not seize the opportunity to put new life into the European project, the risk of failure is real.” It is critical to note here that the main obstacles for this urgent cooperation does not lie in the institutions of the European Union itself, but it lies in the obstructionist politics of member states.
This reflection of national diverging politics, mainly right-wing ones that can be seen in the Netherlands and Austria, effecting the European response has become clearer in light of the recent proposals pushed by France and Germany. According to the Franco-German plan, the European Commission would issue bonds worth 500 Billion euros rather than financing the hardest hit countries through more loans. This proposal makes sense, since the countries that are hit the hardest from the pandemic are the ones that have poor macroeconomic health and high levels of debt, such as Italy and Spain. By providing direct financing of these countries, the European Union not only helps their economic recovery, it also sends a strong message of cooperation and unity. However, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands declared their opposition to any direct grants and instead focused on using the existing schemes that would further indebt the hardest hit countries. As the Franco-German proposal shows how liberal internationalism can help those in need and how it can use this crisis as an opportunity for progress, the objections to the proposal highlight the dangerous limits of consensus-based policy making process, in times of crisis and lack of empathy between countries. In the Italian case, we can see once again people’s rightful expectations of solidarity from liberal institutions and democracies, let down by right-wing leaders and those who pivot to the right-wing populist policies.
While this lack of cooperation has been going on within the European Union, authoritarian regimes around the world did not miss this chance of positive optics. China, Cuba and Russia, have all sent medical supplies and teams to Italy, in a highly publicised fashion. Military vehicles with Russian flags were seen on Italian roads, carrying medical supplies. No country can be blamed for accepting medical aid, when its citizens are facing dire conditions yet the narrative must not be lost to them. This crisis has shown that if liberal international institutions are not empowered, democracies are going to be vulnerable to interference by and influence of authoritarian regimes.
In conclusion, the Italian case shows the dangers of lack of cooperation, empathy and solidarity between those considered liberal democracies. If this situation drags on, it won’t be just Italy or Spain that suffers. The warning and the lesson that this crisis is giving to liberal democracies is loud and clear. It can be summed up best in John Donne’s poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friends were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.