Infecting over a million people in at least 177 countries, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the globe in unparalleled proportions. Facing public health, diplomatic, and economic crises, Europe must improve its current disjointed response. If the European community intends to defeat Coronavirus, European Union member states must unite together as allies under a common narrative.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the European response was incohesive. Fearing depletion of resources and cross-border transmission, individual countries prioritized their own citizens over European solidarity. Germany and Austria almost immediately reestablished borders, and six other European nations instituted export bans on medical equipment. The “me-first” narrative of these countries was well intentioned. However, as the pandemic continued to spread, the individualized responses of member nations increased diplomatic tensions and put citizens and the EU as a whole at risk.
Even after some efforts were made to resolve tension between countries, dissension within the EU remained. For example, in an attempt to combat the potential economic collapse resulting from the Coronavirus, several member nations proposed a plan to provide economic relief. Although the plan was recently enacted, its proposal was met with stark criticism from countries under the “me-first” narrative. More frugal member nations did not want to take responsibility for other nations’ debt and fiercely debated the specifics of the plan.
Disjointed and divided, Europe was ineffective in its response. The divisiveness and delayed action called into question the validity of the European project and caused some nations to even threaten leaving the EU. As one French official said, “On the issue of solidarity, we had a narrative weakness…Europe hasn’t, as a group, communicated enough on the concrete efforts it was making at the local or regional level towards one another.” This lack of unity lets citizens down in a time when cooperative action is the only protection against COVID-19. In this critical moment for Europe, there remains hope that member nations can shift away from the “me-first” narrative to better protect both citizens and solidarity.
France’s involved response to the pandemic provides a transparent example of the potential for shifting narratives. In early March, France enacted protectionist measures under the “me-first” narrative and just a few weeks later, found itself with a concerning spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron drastically shifted the narrative from national protection to wartime urgency by declaring repeatedly that the nation is now “at war” with Coronavirus. This declaration was particularly relevant as it evoked the master narrative of revolution and war ingrained in French culture. Strategically, by conveying the threat of COVID-19 as a war, France strengthened its response on both a domestic and international level.
Domestically, citizens are able to resonate with the narrative as it is relevant to French political culture. The ask by President Macron to abide by a nationwide lockdown is contrary to the liberated mindset of French citizens, but placing such measures in a context of war rationalizes the implementation. On an international level, France provides a poignant example of not only a shift in narrative but also action to support the fight against COVID-19. The nation is leading the charge of cooperative economic stability in support of the war effort. France’s shift to a wartime narrative supports the dire need for unity throughout Europe.
Join the Battle
Although not all member states have followed France, this narrative shift indicates the potential for EU nations to join together under the wartime narrative. The wartime narrative is a powerful motivator in European culture, and in the EU in particular, the wartime narrative can unite nations with different interests against a common enemy. Furthermore, during war, citizens sacrifice a great deal for a larger mission. In the war against COVID-19, the narrative of war allows for comprehensive measures not typical of Western nations. Additionally, the wartime narrative pushes nations to work together—despite differences.
In Europe, the narrative of war may invoke fears of nationalism, but in unprecedented circumstances, it must be utilized for states to work together in the fight against COVID-19. European Union leadership has urged war-like cooperation of its members, and with Coronavirus cases at an all-time high, it is time for member states to answer the call. Only through a unified narrative can Europe emerge victorious against COVID-19, and the wartime narrative holds the power to successfully unify.
Despite the disjointed initial response of Europe, victory against COVID-19 is possible. Following the example of France, EU member states must shift narratives from “me-first” to wartime. Although difficult, it is essential for the protection of citizens. With the number of COVID-19 cases mounting daily, the pandemic is an unparalleled threat to the globe. Europe must join together with unprecedented narrative unity in order to win the battle against COVID-19.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.