Illustration: Olga Souri / Noucmas

What Will The EU Look Like On The Other Side?

A look into Greece’s relationship with the EU before and during the coronavirus. Could the pandemic jeopardize their relationship, or even the future of the E.U. as a whole, even further?

Stavroula Pabst
Jun 18, 2020 · 19 min read

For many Europeans, lockdowns continue as the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe. For now, Greece seems to have avoided the worst of the pandemic. The country has lifted its once-full lockdown, opened many of its stores, and has plans to return to every-day life in the coming weeks. Restaurants and cafes opened on the 25th of May with special rules in place.

Many of Greece’s neighbors, however, have not been so fortunate. Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and Turkey, for example, have all recorded over 150,000 cases of COVID-19 since its outbreak across the larger region.

While the pandemic may continue at some capacity until a vaccine is introduced, there are talks of opening European borders in time for summer travel. Despite efforts to return to normality, however, it remains unclear when — or if — such a thing is possible, even in Greece. In fact, thirty percent of recent COVID-19 cases in Greece are connected to people who have arrived from abroad. Such a development comes quite soon before Greece’s planned reopening to tourists from all nations on 15 June.

While the novel coronavirus has manifested the lack of pandemic preparedness of many public health systems around the world, even those in wealthy countries such as the United States of America, the pandemic has also revealed that the bonds holding other powers together, such as the European Union, are perhaps not as strong as many would like to believe.

For the first time in many years, borders across the continent of Europe have closed. Meanwhile, concerns have risen that Hungary’s Prime Minister’s new emergency powers are close to dictatorial, and therefore fundamentally “incompatible with being in the E.U.”

Some argue, furthermore, that there has been a lack of solidarity between European member states during the current emergency. At a time of crisis, claims of stolen or blocked supplies amongst E.U. member states abound. A moment of particular shame occurred back in March when Italy’s call for help to European neighbors for supplies went ignored. Instead, countries outside the E.U., such as Cuba and China, stepped in with assistance.

“Solidarity is the number one concept behind the [Treaties of the European Union], but no one follows them,” said Dimitris Tsingos a tech entrepreneur, founder of Athens-based tech start-up STARTECH VC. He considers himself part of Europe’s Erasmus generation and believes that the European Union cannot stand as is and that it must become a full-fledged federation if it is to maintain relevance and stability. “It’s an embarrassment that people in France [did not initially] even have masks and gloves to fight the virus.”

Dimitris Tsingos is a tech entrepreneur and the founder of Athens-based tech start-up STARTECH VC.

With over half a million coronavirus cases across the continent and counting, it increasingly appears to some that during crises, it’s every E.U. country for themselves. With a likely economic crisis due to COVID-19 around the corner, furthermore, many are bracing for the worst.

Such a situation poses a serious question: in a post-COVID world, what will the European Union look like?

A recent survey conducted by researchers at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens demonstrated the abject lack of trust Greeks had in E.U. institutions. When asked whether and how much they trusted European Institutions in the present period, the resulting numbers were abysmal: while thirteen percent answered that they had some amount of faith in E.U. institutions, sixty percent answered that they did not. Forty percent of those polled in total, furthermore, said that they did not trust E.U. institutions “whatsoever”.

Similarly, in an Italian poll conducted at the end of March, seventy-two percent of respondents said that they felt the E.U. had not contributed in any way to address the coronavirus emergency within Italy’s borders.

At the same time, some point out that there are limitations as to what the European Union can and cannot do, as dictated by its constitution. “The E.U constitution in itself does not give the Union the authority to do anything in the matters of public health,” pointed out an E.U. official that would like to remain anonymous. “The European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control collects data, issues studies, and the like, but does not have the kind of policy artillery” or resources necessary to address the crisis on its own. He emphasized that the E.U.’s pandemic response is meant to complement the actions taken on by member states.

Still, the official explained that the European Union has taken action within its abilities. For example, the European Union has re-located about 500,000 European nationals in light of the crisis. It has also moved doctors and patients around the Union to meet resources with demand: patients have been relocated to Intensive Care Units in places where there is more hospital space, such as Germany. Meanwhile, doctors from countries such as Romania and Poland have been moved to countries where more medical personnel are needed.

Despite the complicated situation, and despite the actions that have been taken by the European Union to address the crisis thus far, public perception matters. Can the European Union keep up?

How did we get here?

In the greater stage of international relations, the European Union is seen as an ambitious endeavor towards ever greater union. In recent years, however, difficulties have plagued the E.U. and the trust many once had in it. Namely, its resilience was tested during the global recession of the late 2000s and its subsequent debt crisis, which became nothing less than an economic depression for Greece.

Unfortunately, austerity measures that were taken as part of the agreement proved to be disastrous for Greeks. Pensions and public salaries were cut as Greece’s GDP shrank by twenty-seven percent. Cuts in health care spending, furthermore, led directly to a decline in the collective health of the Greek people.

“In these 6 years [2009–2015], we had an entire upside-down situation within the entire economy and society,” said Athanasios-Antonios Leontaris, a lawyer based in Thessaloniki.

“You had people who lost approximately 50–60 percent of their incomes. On average you would have a loss of approximately 20–30 percent [of income]…it was a very tough time, especially for companies and people in the public sector, who basically saw their wages or earnings being cut right in the middle, like fifty percent cuts. It was insane.”

“My father was in the military…one day he was making x amount of money, the next day he was making half,” Leontaris pointed out. “How is that even possible, how can you accept that?” In an era of such cuts, Leontaris explained that the political conversations in Greece changed, becoming more external in nature. “After 2014, with the advent of SYRIZA and Tsipras, the left-wing and the extreme right-wing, the discussion changed tune in the sense that maybe it’s not just our fault, but it’s also the [fault of the] people who did this to us, the Troika.”

Greece’s debt crisis kept its economy in a state of recession until 2017, and many still struggle financially. Over 400,000 young Greeks left the country during the crisis to find better opportunities elsewhere.

“The period of 2012 onwards, the moment when we went into the whole IMF, memorandum, Troika thing…this is where the schizoids situation happened to the Greeks because we realized that we do not belong to the [European] club, actually….That we are not fiscally sound for them, we are not part of their white Christian club, if I am to put it that way,” said iLliana Fokianaki, who is the founder of Athens art gallery and non-profit, State of Concept. Fokianaki argued that the lack of faith Greeks had in European Institutions was unsurprising, considering the events of the last ten years.

“And I don’t think that that has mended since. I think that either if you belong to more conservative politics like Nea Dimokratia, or are a leftist, people are very disenchanted by the way the E.U. has treated Greece, and I don’t think this is trauma that can with three, four, five, seven years can change….. [For a very long time] we were under extreme austerity measures, so I think the disenchantment makes one think of the European Union at large in a more bleak manner, and are more distrustful as to what it can achieve.”

The financial crisis is still a sore subject for many Greeks, as many continue to face its long-lasting impact. Greece, however, has had other qualms about its time spent within the E.U.

Namely, as a point of entry into Europe, Greece has struggled with the world’s refugee crisis, and often with little help from European neighbors. Many have criticized Greece’s handling of the crisis, and there are concerns that a conservative Mitsotakis will attempt to tighten immigration laws in the near future.

At the current time, COVID-19 provides a new fault-line for tensions between Greece and the rest of the European Union when it comes to the issue, as the Greek government does not believe the E.U. is doing enough to accommodate the many asylum seekers that have come to Greece and other E.U. border states, such as Italy, to seek refuge. And while the European Commission has provided some financial support to Greece to prepare for potential COVID-19 outbreaks in its refugee camps and facilities, Panagiotis Mitarachi, Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum, says the assistance is not enough.

Many of the camps hold thousands of people in cramped spaces, often with reduced access to water and other important resources. Moria, a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, for example, has over 20,000 residents despite only being built to accommodate 3,100 people. Concerns that the coronavirus could spread amongst such conditions were confirmed when twenty-three refugees in the open-air Ritsona camp outside Athens tested positive for the virus in late April.

As the anonymous E.U. official pointed out, other states have worked to try to shoulder the difficulties of the migrant crisis to ensure that countries like Greece and Italy are not the only ones welcoming in refugees. On one hand, Germany took in over 1.3 million refugees from 2015 to 2016. On the other hand, other member states such as Hungary, Czechia, and Poland tried to refuse entrance to refugees completely, but not without retribution.

“These countries were sued and condemned in court,” the EU official pointed out, emphasizing that there are ramifications for not following EU laws that have been put into place. Unfortunately, such a process took three years. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and of course this has all made the process more difficult for Greece.”

iLiana Fokianaki, director and founder of contemporary art institution State of Concept Athens, delivering a lecture in Ljubljana in 2018.

Matters came to a head in February of this year, when footage of members of the Greek Coast Guard shooting at a refugee boat was made public. Such an action, called a pushback, is illegal under European Union law, which states that refugees cannot be turned away by states after borders have been crossed. Instead, persons who have crossed the border must be given the opportunity to apply for asylum.

The event received widespread coverage in the Greek media, much of which Dimitris Tsingos found to be distasteful.

“I was very unhappy with the way the country reacted to the events of February…the way the Greek government and media were using military terminology [to describe the incident]….This ‘men in uniform protecting our borders,’ dialogue” Tsingos commented, citing the attack on incoming refugees by the Greek coast guard in late February. “This type of language demonstrated by the media is the dominant approach on the matter. This is fascism.”

The European Response

Circumstances are already difficult in Greece, where the lockdown and its after-effects have many residents strapped-for-cash. Rent and mortgage payments, along with utilities, are amongst the most difficult expenses.

For Greece, the tourist season is certainly up in the air, but so are many other aspects of Greece’s economy, which are still rebounding from the previous crisis. There is a concern, for example, that many small grocery stores and businesses will continue to struggle as much more than before COVID.

In light of such difficulties in Greece and elsewhere, the European Commission has been working on plans to address the pandemic and its potential ramifications. Some of it has been with the widespread criticisms of the European Union in mind.

Many of the European Commission’s present efforts are targeted towards keeping the E.U.’s internal market running. There have been fears of supply chains being choked by closed borders during the crisis, potentially resulting in shortages of necessary supplies and foodstuffs in parts of Europe. To counter the issue, and to promote economic activity at a time of slow down, green lanes implemented by the Commission have allowed for supply trucks to pass through closed borders with reduced delay.

In the long term, there is hope that preventive action now will absorb the pandemic’s impact on the European economy, which some fear could be as dire as the Great Depression. Already in the year’s first fiscal quarter, the E.U.’s GDP decreased by 3.5 percent. Reports say, furthermore, that the Greek economy could contract by as much as 9.7 percent in the 2020 calendar year.

Therefore, a recovery instrument of up to 2.4 trillion euros has been proposed by the E.U. Commission, which would be implemented to finance the recovery of the European economy in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The next portion of the €2.4 trillion response posed, which totals in at €750 billion euros, is the Commission’s Next Generation E.U. plan, which is an emergency temporary recovery instrument. €500 billion of the €750 billion proposed would be used as grants to member states most affected by the crisis, whereas the remaining €250 billion will be used as loans for others. The final 1.1 trillion euros of the €2.4 trillion response is allotted for the newly revised Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) plan of 2021–2027, to plan for the longer-term social and economic impacts the coronavirus crisis will have on the continent of Europe.

European Commission officials hope that such plans proposed will be approved swiftly. As of now, the European Council is set to discuss such proposals for the recovery fund and the 2021–2027 MFF on June 19.

With a focus on loans in its pandemic response, the E.U. has decided to allow member states to accrue larger deficits than usual. As such, Europe has temporarily relaxed expectations that member states’ deficits do not exceed three percent of GDP. Such a rule had gotten Greece into trouble ten years previously during the debt crisis: it has now been lifted to allow states room to spend or take on debt in a time of emergency. If easing such restrictions can help alleviate the stresses of the current situation, in other words, the worst can hopefully be avoided, and debts taken on now can be paid back in the future.

Another issue up for consideration due to the pandemic is the question of state aid. Generally, E.U. member states are not allowed to give funding to companies within their borders unless provided under specific circumstances. The rule is in place to prevent larger businesses from wealthier E.U. countries from overrunning smaller businesses, so that competition may be considered fair within the context of an internal market. In light of the crisis, and in light of the need to pump money into the economy quickly, however, such regulations have been temporarily relaxed.

The decision has proven controversial, as some argue that the move ultimately benefits wealthier states over others, and could undermine competition in less developed countries. Such frustrations are not unfounded: thus far, fifty-two percent of the state aid that has been approved by the European Commission has come from Germany.

Inequality between E.U. member states, overall, has become a prevalent topic of debate in recent years. Namely, there is a divide in wealth between the European Union’s wealthier northern states and some of its southern states, who have struggled financially in the last fifteen years. Tensions arose between the two groups during the debt crisis in the late 2000s, when debt-burdened member states, such as Greece and Italy, expressed that they were not receiving adequate relief in a time of economic hardship. Some belonging to wealthier states, having paid their dues, felt that it was not necessarily their duty to help their counterparts.

Such differences, which have left many with feelings of skepticism towards the European project as a whole, have manifested themselves once more with the current question of state aid, as some argue that the arrangement is one where the union’s wealthier members stand to benefit at the detriment of others.

Countries such as “the Netherlands talk about the shrinking [European] economy… but they do not think of the ecology of Europe in financial terms, and how one country’s actions influence the other countries…..This will be a Pan-European problem. We had a crisis in 2007 and they seem to have not learned their lesson from that,” said Fokianaki, who felt that the relaxing of state aid-rules could be disastrous for E.U. member states with weaker economies.

“There has been no solidarity whatsoever. [There is] no understanding of what the European Union is outside of being a financial union that serves [the wealthier states’] own interests.”

Individual countries, meanwhile, have their own issues. In Greece, for example, there are concerns about how the country is going to continue to operate in light of the slow-down. Greece relaxed some of its tax requirements for residents and businesses during the lockdown, with the understanding that many of them were simply not taking in money. The lack of tax revenue, however, could spell trouble for the small country in the coming months.

“Small companies have to provide VAT [Value-Added Taxes] to the state. For everything I’m being paid — -twenty-four percent goes to the state…. So, I am paying my dues. Are we sure everybody else is? …If taxpayers don’t pay their taxes, how will the state be able to pay teachers, nurses, doctors, the armed forces, police officers, and firefighters?” asked Leontaris.

“I’m very very concerned that at some point, the diminished economic activity will create this a huge gap in income for the state, which I am not sure what it will lead to. ….Without taxes to fund the state, will the state collapse? I don’t think it will actually collapse. We might see wage cuts in the public sector, which would be very bad.”

Europe’s Changing Role on The World Stage

Certainly, the European Union has found itself with a confidence crisis as Euroscepticism has continued to grow. Perhaps one of the largest challenges to the union’s future, coronavirus aside, is Brexit, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which was initiated on the first of February this year after a long period of negotiations. As a major player in the E.U. for decades, the U.K.’s leave puts the future of the European project into question for many.

“We also have an internal problem in the Union,” said the anonymous E.U. official. The official pointed out that times of apparent lack of E.U. action can often be attributed in part to the principle of conferred powers, which states that the Union can only exercise powers its member states have voluntarily granted to it.

“The European Union can only do what it is entrusted to do. It does not have a military and it relies on NATO and the United States. The idea was, and the way things have worked out in the aftermath of the Cold War, [is that] the US would provide the hard power, and the European Union would provide the soft power.”

Due to the problematic colonial pasts of European countries such as the U.K. and France, the European Union had nevertheless found itself with international connections, and thus a diplomatic and strategic advantage over other countries, for decades.

Such a past is one that Fokianaki believes that many European powers have not adequately addressed or reflected upon. “All these [Northern European] countries made their wealth through colonialism and through the murder and exploitation of black bodies, as well as of lands of other continents, be it South Asia or be it, Africa,” explained Fokianaki. “And not understanding their financial privilege and how they came to this financial privilege, for me is infuriating.”

“There is a lack of recognition of the bloody wealth [of the well-off European nations], it’s bloody really, that sustains white supremacy,” Fokianaki elaborated. “There are these rich wealthy white European nations, and then there’s the rest of the world.”

In the meantime, instability in the United States, one of the E.U.’s major allies, has made the relationship between the two political powerhouses uncertain. Instead of playing a significant role in the international pandemic response as some may have expected, the U.S. has not been able to meaningfully contain the pandemic within its borders, and currently has several times more coronavirus cases than any other country.

“Things are not the same as the U.K. leaving, and with the U.S. as an unstable power. The Union will no longer be able to exercise the soft power [as it has before],” the E.U. official continued. “The leadership one would hope to have [in the U.S.A.] is missing. It would be a truism to say we can no longer trust the U.S.,” said the official. “Winston Churchill once said that you can always trust Americans to do the right thing….We see now that the U.S. is taking a very unilateralist approach, which is bad news for everyone.”

Others, however, have frustrations with the existing E.U.- U.S. relationship, especially concerning foreign policy decisions the U.S. has made. One decision that remains particularly divisive was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which many Europeans opposed.

“We [The European Union] have issues with the U.S., but when things happen, we go to them!” complained Tsingos, who felt that many countries had ceased to take the European Union seriously on the international level. “That comes with strings attached.”

Tsingos also shared his issues about the way the E.U. was structured. “One big problem is that there is an incredible shift of power from the European Commission to the heads of states,” Tsingos noted. “In theory, there is a balance between these three entities. But when the time comes, decisions are not made in the European Parliament [or the] commission. They are all made in the minister’s meetings. [Amongst] countries that are making the decisions…..the country of Germany has the most gravity, and everyone knows it. It’s the elephant in the room. France pretends otherwise, but it’s a theatre play.”

At the same time, the current political moment has proven to be an opportunity for other emerging global powers. This is especially the case for China, which has largely restarted its economy after months of lockdown. And while other E.U. member states were slow to assist, China, Cuba, and Russia famously provided supplies and personnel to European countries, including Italy and Greece, relatively quickly. The move has been applauded by many as a show of solidarity between countries that have not always had the most friendly relations.

While many believe China’s efforts to assist others comes in part from its desire to clean up its image as the original source of the outbreak, China’s response to the pandemic within its own borders has also been praised by many. A particularly impressive feat was the country’s ability to build entire hospitals to fight the coronavirus in the span of only a few days.

Some interviewed, however, spoke of concerns that China’s helping hand came with strings attached.

After all, China has had greater economic influence in Europe in recent decades. Much of this is due to the country’s sheer financial strength, as China now has the world’s second-largest economy. Not unlike its European and American counterparts, China’s business class is interested in expanding its opportunities internationally to cut a profit.

Athanasios-Antonios Leontaris, a lawyer based in Thessaloniki

In Greece, for example, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) owns much of the port of Piraeus, one of Europe’s largest ports. It had invested in the port during the debt crisis, when few would consider doing the same, and acquired a majority stake in the port in 2016, thereby taking over the port’s management and operations. Greece later signed onto China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative in 2018, a global development initiative that many other European countries, concerned with China’s growing influence internationally, have kept their distance from. In contrast, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the Greek President at the time, said Greece had benefited financially by joining the initiative in 2019.

When interviewed, Leontaris also pointed out that the Chinese Electricity State Grid has a stake in the equivalent Greek state grid. Past a point, he pointed out that such investments around the country and continent alike are understood by some to be about more than financial gain.

“This buying up of political influence should worry us all,” said Leontaris. “We are paying so much in taxes, and most of it goes to Brussels, and that’s fine. There needs to be some sort of bureaucracy there. But I’d like to know that our civil servants in the E.U. are not being unduly influenced by huge sums of money being doled out by lobbyists…simply because Europe is being outspent on influence.”

At a time in which Europe finds itself strapped for cash, circumstances dictate that it may soon find itself strapped for relevance.

Greek and an EU flag in Athens during June 2015. Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos / FOS PHOTOS

What Next?

Despite the uncertainty, hardships, and disagreements, many Greeks still care about their relationship with the European Union.

Certainly, Greeks benefit in some ways from being part of the European Union. First, they can travel, live, and study in other E.U. countries as they so please. Moreover, as Leontaris noted, they enjoy various regulations and standards that come with being in the E.U.

“I believe that citizens would feel differently about the state of the union if they realized that the E.U. sets the regulations safeguarding standards,medicine, food and fundamental rights such as privacys,” said Leontaris. “We don’t understand a lot about the E.U., and that’s why we don’t feel the E.U has a positive impact. People are making a negative connection between the Eurozone and the European Union.”

Still, the situation is complicated. It is clear to many that the European Union must be more proactive when it comes to the continent’s approach to issues such as healthcare and the environment.

“It is very clear to me that health needs to be re-addressed as a concept [by the European Union]. We need to depart from the neo-liberal proposition that health is a service. Health is a human right,” said Fokianaki, who emphasized that a restructuring of the European Union will be necessary in the near future if there is to be meaningful change. “So I hope, and am really waiting for, some sort of movement from the European Union towards this direction, of really solidifying its relationship to health. The [coronavirus] vaccine should be a public good as well, that it’s not something that one makes money off: it’s something all people need to have when it comes, if it comes. We need to have a strategy that is caring for citizens and not for profit.”

“Europe has been in my life almost forever. I am pro-European in my mind, but that does not necessarily mean that I am Pro-E.U.,” says Dimitris Tsingos, expressing his thoughts on the complicated state of affairs. Tsingos emphasized that the union will have to become more centralized if it is to make the critical decisions necessary to direct its future successfully. “If the E.U. does not evolve into a federation, we will have a dark future. It will be dissolved.”

“There aren’t magical solutions,” the E.U. official concluded. The handling of the crisis “might harbor Euroscepticism and alienation from the European project [for some], but others may come to the realization that solutions must be across borders and multilateral in nature.”

While opinions on the E.U.’s future vary widely, it is clear the coming months will be critical.


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