“This has been catastrophic for the reputation of the European Union,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
At the start of the crisis, as nations erected borders and hoarded protective equipment, masks and gowns, there was a huge desire for European cooperation, he said, “not because people liked the E.U. or its institutions, but because they were so absent.”
But the question now, he said, is buyer’s remorse. “The E.U. waded into an area with no expertise and competence and put a spotlight on itself,” he said. “In the minds of many who look at the U.K. and U.S. and Israel, they think we’re doing badly because of European cooperation, and that will have a corrosive impact in other areas.”
Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, said that the “fundamental legitimacy” of the bloc came less from its democratic institutions, which are weak, than from its performance, which is how it will be judged. Its real legitimacy, he said, “is what it delivers for Europeans.”
But the bloc’s other major initiative, a groundbreaking pandemic recovery fund, has yet to be put in place and is dwarfed by American stimulus packages.
While national leaders commonly take credit for every success and blame the Commission for every failure, the pandemic has displayed the vulnerabilities of a bureaucracy with weak and divided leadership. An effort by the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor, to enhance her power and profile by grabbing vaccine procurement from member states has proved disastrous.