Central European response to #COVID19 crisis
The quick widespread of COVID-19, took Europe by surprise. On 9 March 2020, the citizens of Italy and Spain were already experiencing serious consequences of the virus, the incumbent President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen spent just a minute and a half discussing the issue at a news conference devoted to the first 100 days in office. Nobody at that time knew that the spread of the virus would evolve so rapidly. Rather than coordinate the response and measures, Member States have started to act separately.
As of 3rd April 2020, 26 EU Member States have introduced their border controls (border checks or border closure), out of which five have shut down the international airports and 18 of them introduced the state of emergency. Additionally, the EU decided to close its borders, for the first time in history, the EU external borders for a minimum of 30 days. It has been 25 years since the Schengen zone was put in place, the borderless area had never been interrupted to such an extension.
Overall, countries in Central Europe (V4) seem to be in the early stage of the pandemic. As of 3 April 2020, the Czech Republic (with 10.6 million population) has reported the highest number of confirmed cases (3,869) of COVID 19 among V4, followed by Poland 2946 cases (per 37.9 million population), Hungary - 525 cases (with 9.7 million people) and 400 cases in Slovakia (also the smallest in terms of population among V4 – 5.4 million citizens).
Overall, the V4 governments reacted to the crisis relatively fast and assertively compared to the Western European states. Additionally, V4 citizens, for whom social distancing comes rather naturally, have diligently followed the restrictions. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia were among the first few countries to take preventive measures, which resulted in shutting down virtually all public life and in closing the universities, schools and kindergartners. In early March all V4 countries but Poland declared a state of emergency. This happened in Hungary on 11 March, in the Czech Republic on 12 March and in Slovakia on 16 March.
Similarly, the other countries in the EU have cancelled all public events and non-essential shops (with few exceptions) are closed. The Czech Republic and Poland went even further and banned public meetings of more than two people. Additionally, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic face masks or other coverings of the nose and mouth by every citizen while being outside of their residence has been made mandatory. Restaurants are closed for dining and are only serving “take out” food across the EU.
To contain the spread through border infiltration from within the V4 countries, they decided to seal off the EU internal borders well in advance. Slovakia did it on 13 March while Poland on 15 March, followed by Hungary and the Czech Republic on 16 March. Moreover, a mandatory 14-day quarantine for everyone coming from abroad applied to all V4 countries. There are mainly three reasons why Central European governments acted assertively and quickly.
First, there was a risk (at least in Slovakia) that the citizens who could have contracted the disease at ski-resorts in neighbouring Italy or Austria may have brought it home. For instance, by coincidence, the Spring break in the Bratislava region in Slovakia, took place exactly when the virus has started to be viral in neighbouring countries, which was between 15 and 22 February 2020. The data released by mobile operators indicated that around eight thousand people visited Italy at that time. The example of the Austrian village of Ischgl shows that ignoring the first symptoms of an outbreak, can have serious consequences for the country and beyond, and become uncontrollable.
Secondly, V4 countries have one of the highest numbers of cross-border commuters as a share of the employed population. It means that 5.5% of Slovak, 2.37% Hungarians, and relatively less Polish and Czech workers cross the border every day to go to work, which is above the EU average that stands at 0.9%. It is because there has been a free movement without stringent ID checks at the borders.
Thirdly, it is true that the coronavirus poses an immediate risk to the healthcare capacity of the nation. It is important to note that the Czech Republic spends 6.2% of its GDP on healthcare which is above the EU-27 average (6.03%) and equal to Spain, according to the OECD data. The healthcare systems in Slovakia, Hungary and Poland are underfinanced. Their spending equals respectively 5.4%, 4.6% and 4.5%, which is relatively less than Italy (6.5%) which is one of the most affected countries today. On the other hand, Czech society is the oldest among V4. People aged 65 and over, who are the most exposed to the virus, constitute 19.4% of Czech society, which is still below Italy (22.7%) but quite similar to Spain (19.8%), according to the OECD data. The second oldest is Hungary (19.1%) and thereafter Poland (17.2%). Finally, Slovakia has the lowest numbers of elderly people (15.8%) among V4 and less compared to the EU average (19.8%).
An unfortunate spin-off of the pandemic is that some governments in Central Europe such as Poland and Hungary are exploiting the situation for political reasons. For example, Poland has so far been refrained from introducing an officially de facto state of emergency (a state of epidemiological threat is in place since 13 March 2020) to hold the Presidential elections on 10 May 2020. This is controversial for at least three reasons. First, it exposes the whole society to an immediate health threat. Second, it marginalizes the opposition (due to public containment measures in place). Finally, it gives the incumbent President an unprecedented advantage over President Andrzej Duda. Hungary is the opposite case to Poland. It introduced the state of emergency for an indefinite period, which means that the incumbent government can rule by decrees with no specified time limit.
The coronavirus outbreak is testing the solidarity of Central Europe and the EU in general. What is more, it is putting into question the quality of bridges that have been built (or not) between the East-West and North-South in the EU. Unquestionably, the COVID-19 crisis will have also an impact on the future shape of European integration. The dilemma of “more integration” backed by old member states such as France, or ‘taking back control’ preferred by V4 will be back on the table and discussed even with more passion. It will all depend on how the Member States will face and narrate the crisis (“coming from abroad” like in the case of Poland vs “virus does not have a border” as in France) at home. Moreover, it will also undermine how the EU reaction will look like and how it will be communicated in the Member States. This crisis is however different from the “solidarity” crisis in 2015 as it impacts all Member States equally and has no borders. All Member States will feel its burden (not like in 2015 when mostly the Southern countries were affected by immigration from third countries) and eventually take advantage of the EU coordination mechanism and keep showing solidarity and European spirit.
 Central Europe is defined here as the Visegrad Group (V4) that includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
This article was originally published on the Observer Research Foundation website on 4 April 2020.
Policy Director, Centre for Global Europe