Waterloo station London UK England covid
Commuters at Waterloo Station, in London (File image) Image Credit: AP

If the coronavirus pandemic never happened — wishful thinking for sure for some many millions across Europe — 2020 would have been a year dominated by the prolonged debate over the United Kingdom and its future relationship with the European Union.

And as 2021 begins, there is indeed every hope that the roll-out of vaccines across the continent and a last-minute Brexit deal will at least mean that the worst elements of the past 12 months can at last be finally left behind once and for all.

But the pandemic will indeed have left its scars across Europe as the EU — the bloc of 27 member states collectively makes up the world’s third largest economy in a common market of more than 500 million people.

While the initial outbreak of coronavirus was at first confined to Wuhan and other centres in China, the north of Italy soon suffered an outbreak centred on the city of Bergamo. By mid-February its hospitals were overwhelmed and Italian authorities were quick to order a ban on travel and visits to the region, the first elements of a phased response that become all to Europeans — and remain so as 2021 dawns.

Tightest of conditions with stiff fines

There Italy suffered, Spain was quick to follow. The government in Madrid ordered the regions of northeast Spain shuttered, then within weeks order a full lockdown — what was to be the strictest imposed in Europe, where residents could only move within 100 metres of their homes, alone, or under the tightest of conditions and with stiff fines and heavy policing ensuring adherence.

France followed suit, with President Emmanuel Macron winning plaudits for his tough measures, and he was keen to be seen to take personal control of the crisis. Essentially, by March 11, most of western Europe had banned movements of people, had shut down international borders in a continent where the free movement of people, services and goods had been in effect for more four decades, and had placed their respective national economies into hibernation for periods between six and eight weeks — or longer if deemed necessary.

Only Sweden, where public health officials there adopted a herd-immunity outlook, and Belarus, where governmental officials played down the seriousness of the virus itself, opted to go their own way and not shut down their civil societies and normal day-to-day activities.

But the strength of the EU system — a bloc based on mutual cooperation and economic assistance — clearly shown. European governments were very quick to implement massive macroeconomic support packages, with few precedents in recent history. So far, these have kept the number of layoffs and bankruptcies far lower than would have been expected under a sharp contraction of economic activity.

EU recovery plan

By April 2, roughly two weeks into the worst of the crisis, the European Commission — the cabinet-like body that oversees the day-to-day operation of the EU — had put together a recovery programme worth €3.7 billion (Dh16.5 billion).

The economic damage wrought by the coronavirus meant that the EU’s long-standing fiscal rules and precedents were put on hold — the pandemic and its effects trumped the tight hold on European purse strings favoured by the northern and Nordic members of the bloc.

For Italy in particular — hardest hit by the pandemic — the EU funds both in the form of grants and loans were an economic lifesaver, and helped to roll back some of the anti-EU sentiment that had taken root while Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and his League party had been part of the national government there.

The member states of the European Union usually set the bloc’s budget for seven years at a time, and the pandemic has indeed formed a central element of the new budget. After a period of fraught negotiations in June and July, the EU leaders hammered out a new €1.8 trillion budget, but tied rule-of-law conditions to the disbursement of EU funds.

It was a warning shot across the bows of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland that they needed to abide by the democratic provisions and conditions for membership of the bloc. While the issue has been resolved temporarily, Brussels and the European Parliament will be watching events in Budapest and Warsaw in the coming months.

Brexit off the table

At least now, however, Brexit is finally off the table.

The United Kingdom, its place in or out of Europe, had long dominated both the European and British agendas. With just days left before the end of the transition period, negotiations from both sides managed to find common ground to remove the threat and economic devastation of a no-deal Brexit. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson can look back on 2020 and note that yes indeed he did get Brexit done.

But he faces a nation that is enduring its worst economic downturn in more than three centuries and the discovery of at least one new virulent strain of coronavirus in southern England means that at least half of all English are living under the two toughest tiers of Covid-19 restrictions, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all locked down once more too.

The UK leader’s popularity has also taken a hit by a relatively slow reaction to the coronavirus, with the UK shutting down 10 days after most of Europe. The images of thousands of trucks stranded at English Channel ports in the lead to Christmas and the New Year will add to the perception that London has failed to tackle the coronavirus with the actions that reinforce its words.

In the UK, where health policy is devolved to the regional parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been quick to capitalise on missteps at Westminster. With elections to the regional parliament in Edinburgh due on May 6, Scottish nationalists have every intention of exploiting London’s bumbling into gains at the polls.