The EU’s Digital Response to #COVID19

Since it first migrated outside China, the Corona virus has dominated news cycles as pundits offer the public a variety of doomsday scenarios. This was true even before the virus crippled Italy or left many dead in Spain. The Corona virus makes for good ratings for several reasons. First, during the 20th and 21st century mankind no longer feared nature, but what mankind could do to nature. We can now destroy forests, invent viruses and drink sea water. But like the wildfires in Australia, the Corona virus is a reminder of nature’s omnipotence. The resurgence of nature rattles our understanding of the world and our place in it. Additionally, the nation state has been in crisis for several years as agency migrated to trans-national institutions while borders became irrelevant. Yet during a health crisis, citizens turn to their own government for aid, and not international bodies. The Corona crisis thus resonates with the populist zeitgeist as safe borders are closed borders. Indeed, Corona is the incarnation of the supposed threat of open borders- it is the ultimate immigrant. Moreover, our world is also characterized by a 24-hour news cycle. News websites and Twitter commentators are in need of a constant supply of headlines. A mysterious virus that migrates from country to country while threatening communities offers an abundance of headlines. Finally, in its early stages, the Corona virus threatened the reputation of China. Western media agencies gladly discussed the outbreak in China while emphasizing that one small virus brought the new world power to its knees. There was also much speculation regarding the figures published by China and so China’s management of Corona was reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s management of the Chernobyl incident.

Of course once the virus migrated to Europe the narrative altered. Borders were closed, flight were cancelled, universities and schools were shut down while in some countries even the most basic functions were denied- how the UK will function without pubs remains to be seen. Europe is an interesting case study as nations exist independent of one another while also being joined in a political union. Since the beginning of the Corona crisis I have been monitoring the digital accounts of the EU. As mentioned above, should the EU fail to take part in the management of the crisis, the Corona virus will serve as a constant reminder of the need for national agency and strong national borders. If, on the other hand, the Union will collaborate, or at least appear to collaborate, then the crisis may serve as a turning point that strengthens the EU. This blog post analyzes the EU’s digital response.

#Nothing

During the first week of the Corona outbreak in Europe, the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS) did not address the outbreak on Twitter. There were not tweets detailing how the EU could coordinate a joint response nor was there an indication of any scientific or medical coordination. Even as the number of infected people grew in Italy, the EU did not address the spread of the virus nor did it announce that special working groups had been established. In fact, the EEAS published a host of tweets detailing its diplomatic efforts around the world.

The EEAS is, of course, hampered in digital communications as issues addressed online must first be approved by member states. Moreover, the EU does not dictate national policies nor can it publish its own health guidelines. These are formulated by national government. Even more problematic is the fact that different nations in Europe have taken very different approaches. While some nations have enacted local or national quarantines, in others public spaces remian open.

The question that follows, is what could the EEAS address online? First, it could acknowledge the crisis rather than ignore it. It need not use the word crisis but at least demonstrate that the EU’s institutions are monitoring the situation. Second, it could detail any shared efforts. Third, it could publish any collaborative or European-wide decisions. Fourth, the EU could address any measures that may be taken in order to help member states with high numbers of infected people including Italy and later Spain. Even messages of solidarity would have been important. Finally, the EU could detail any joint financial measures that would be taken. In many countries, newscasts and newspapers have focused on the financial aspect of the crisis and its impact on global trade.

The one tweet published by the EEAS dealt with China as the outbreak in Italy was just starting. The emphasis in this tweet, shown below, was on foreign aid as opposed a coordinated EU response.

#COVID

During the past week, the EEAS has published several tweets which emphasize the idea of a shared response while highlighting the EU’s strengths. Such is the case with the tweet below offering EU funding for medical research that might create a vaccine against the Corona Virus.

Another tweet, shown below, depicted EU officials laboring to secure flights for citizens abroad. This tweet positions the EU as nation-state, one with dedicated diplomats offering consular aid to stranded citizens.

Most striking, however, was the video below featuring the President of the EU Commission. In it, she discusses the need for a European wide response to the Corona crisis. This will include closing the EU’s borders, opening internal markets to allow the flow of goods and the European-wide production of preventive garments for medical staff. The language of the video is that of “we”. We need, we must, we work and we adopted. There is also a call to arms as “we must help each other”.

Additional tweets published over the past two days have also dealt with a coordinated financial response to the Corona virus.

#Summary

It is in moments of crisis that digital platforms can best be used to obtain diplomatic goals as people increasingly turn to digital channels to learn about the world. The Corona virus will pass, but its memory will be etched onto our minds for some time to come. The EU should use digital channels to demonstrate that benefits of international collaboration, and the folly of isolationism.

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