BRUSSELS: The European Union has faced and survived a series of existential threats over the years but the coronavirus epidemic has exposed old wounds that could yet prove fatal.

A debt crisis in Mediterranean countries, a series of refugee influxes and the ongoing saga on Brexit all rattled the European project but did not sink it. They may, however, have left it vulnerable to a new disease.

“The germ is back,” former European Commission president and one of the modern union’s chief architects, Jacques Delors, said on Saturday.

“The climate that seems to hang over the heads of state and government and the lack of European solidarity pose a mortal danger to the European Union,” he warned.

How did it come to this? Certainly, Europe is the continent worst hit by the novel coronavirus epidemic that arrived from China, with around 18,000 deaths.

But EU member states also have some of the most advanced public health infrastructure in the world and a 27-member common project that should help them weather the storm.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has begged national capitals to show solidarity, but the crisis has only underlined existing divisions.

Italy, Spain and France — the hardest hit countries so far, with cases spreading fast — are pushing for Europe to find a way to better share the financial burden.

But the Netherlands and Germany are sceptical, fearing their big-spending southern neighbours will exploit the crisis to push for a pooling of eurozone government debts.

So-called “coronabonds” wo­u­ld, in the view of more frugal northern economies, be a back door to “eurobonds” that could undermine the stability of the single currency.

They do not want southern countries to benefit from cheaper interest rates unless they can be made to play by the austere public spending rules, just like the north.

Regardless of the economics of the dilemma, the row has revealed a bitter split among member capitals, and strong language is being thrown around in public.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “not just a disagreement but a hard and frank confrontation” during a videoconference on Thursday.

“If Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’etre to the people,” Conte told the Il Sole 24 Ore financial newspaper.

The EU has traditionally made its greatest strides forward when France and Germany have worked together, but on the debt issue France is siding with its southern allies.

“We won’t overcome this crisis without strong European solidarity, in terms of health and budgets,” French President Emmanuel Macron told Italian newspapers.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020