Politics, domestic and international, is already morphing under the strain of the coronavirus, and all signs indicate that it will continue to do so. Some governments will rise to higher ideals, to duty and justice, equity and science; others will simply be unable to meet the test or, worse, disgrace themselves. Some systems will allow combinations of various measures, and some political leaders will take decisions in good faith, based on good science, but still get it wrong. This, though, is the stage when politics comes to the fore, when the values of those with power are revealed. More than that, this crisis is becoming a test of the international order, formal and institutional or informal and cultural, to cope with the pressures placed on it by nationalism, quackery, corruption, ignorance, and malevolence.
Read: Trump’s dangerously effective coronavirus propaganda
Yesterday, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, slashed interest rates in a coordinated stimulus effort with the British government. He declared that 2008 had revealed the danger that the new globally integrated financial system posed, but that today this very system could help, not hinder. In his world, global institutions and a culture of coordination had developed. The giants of the financial crash had learned the lessons from the 1930s and moved quickly and globally in the knowledge that a beggar-my-neighbor policy in a global depression beggars everyone in the end. Today, it is sobering simply to wonder whether anyone is applying this lesson to the pandemic—an even more obvious case of the stupidity of petty nationalism.
And yet, as ever with the American president, the rationale for his decision carries its own peculiarly Trumpian worldview, exposing both how he sees the world and the weaknesses of who he sees as his adversaries. Trump is nothing if not alive to the flaws of his enemies. In this case, it is not without logic to treat the European Schengen Area as one country. While it clearly isn’t one and doesn’t overlap neatly with either the euro or the European Union (Norway, which is not an EU member, is part of Schengen; Ireland, which is both an EU member and part of the eurozone, is not), it is a core feature for almost all EU member states, a common travel area in which there are no internal checks. Schengen is one of Europe’s core strengths and accomplishments, but also a structural weakness that continues to challenge its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens.
The EU is a proto-state. It has the institutions of a state, a central bank and parliament, currency and court. And yet it is weaker than a conventional state, mostly unable to take effective collective action in times of crisis, whether diplomatically, fiscally, or militarily. Its weakness is in handling migration and debts, refugees and Russian aggression. The worry today is that this weakness will be exposed, even though the coronavirus is exactly the type of cross-border challenge that highlights one of the EU’s fundamental strengths: its ability to coordinate continentally.