I understand the phrase "it was every country for itself" as "(the situation is) that every European country was fighting against the pandemic alone within its own borders, (rather than fighting for the European Union - which is what a member state of the Union should do)." Am I on the right track?

The New York Times tweeted: In Opinion

"When the pandemic reached Europe in the early months of 2020, it was every country for itself," writes Chris Bickerton, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University. "That was not how the European Union was supposed to work."

Source: Twitter

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    I suppose you are right. But it seems it's kind of a negative reflection, like "nobody helped nobody" or "every country tried to take care of their very own selves". Commented May 18, 2021 at 8:37
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    The traditional expression is every man for himself, originally implying that every man in a defeated fighting force had to do his best to survive instead of obeying orders and collaborating with the others. Commented May 18, 2021 at 9:10
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    Yes, that is what the opinion writer of the NYT meant. Commented May 18, 2021 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


You are right. In other words, each country had to fend for itself with no other country helping it. This is a well-known phrase, and most often comes up in the context of a battle:

the squadron had broken apart, it was every man for himself.

or in something that's being humorously compared to a battle:

This may be an academic conference but once the buffet opens it's every historian for herself.

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