The year 2020 has been a year unlike any other in modern history. A year in which European solidarity has been put to test.
Before it had even begun, word of a new and potentially deadly virus coming out of China was already spreading.
In what resembled something out of an apocalypse film, the Chinese city of Wuhan – the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak – was quickly placed under strict lockdown that lasted for 76 days.
Draconian measures were imposed, with all public transport suspended and travel in and out of the city banned.
But as Europe looked on with a sense of disbelief that such steps could never and would never be taken on its soil, reality suddenly hit.
“The WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom declared.
Within weeks, the deadly disease had taken hold in northern Italy.
Thousands were being hospitalised every day and hundreds dying. The healthcare system was buckling under the strain of COVID-19.
Italians were rightly asking where the so-called European solidarity was, prompting Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to answer.
“Too many were not there in time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning. And yes, for that, it is right that Europe, as a whole, offers a heartfelt apology,” she said.
By early Spring, the virus was now rampaging throughout Europe. One-by-one, countries closed their borders, going into the unprecedented lockdowns that they hoped would never happen.
It was a moment where countries retreated within themselves, as Matina Stevis-Gridneff from The New York Times told Euronews.
“In this time of crisis, the instinct and the muscle memory of EU member states was to go back to the capitals; go back to claiming their decision-making powers and their sovereignty,” Stevis-Gridneff said.
But it was in July that the most significant moment of the year came for the European Union.
After days and days of talks, leaders managed to agree to a groundbreaking deal. For the first time in the history of the EU, there would be shared debt. A €750bn coronavirus recovery fund to help the continent spend its way out of the crisis where every member state shared the burden.
“They haven’t wanted to make group decisions on how to spend and they haven’t wanted to make group decisions on how to borrow. What the pandemic has done is required a group response and it has gotten one,” Rebecca Christie from the Bruegel think-tank explained to Euronews.
In the end, the fund was attached to the EU’s €1.1tn seven-year budget, taking the combined total to €1.8tn.
But it was never going to be so simple after Hungary and Poland vetoed the budget, testing even further the solidarity of the bloc.
They had concerns over a rule of law mechanism that MEPs attached to the cash, which only allowed EU funds to be distributed if European values and democratic norms are respected, like the independence of the judiciary and the media.
Budapest and Warsaw claimed the mechanism was being used as a political weapon against them, with accusations of “democratic backsliding” in the two-member states already being well-documented.
A deal was eventually reached, however, allowing all sides to claim victory.
As expected though, the second wave of coronavirus eventually hit Europe. And it hit hard. Harder in Central and Eastern Europe than the first time around – one European was dying every 17 seconds.
But finally, there was hope – vaccines that many hoped would spell the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
With the Commission buying up hundreds of millions of doses, to ensure that everyone would have access, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The European Medicines Agency eventually approved the first vaccine against COVID-19, developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, with inoculations beginning by December 27.
The solidarity of the European Union was truly tested this year and, for now, it seems to have survived this trial.
But as the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate, the end of 2020 is far from the final curtain on COVID-19 many desired it to be.