Europe Day 2020

We live in challenging times that deeply affect all of the international society. Currently, governments world-wide are struggling to protect their populations from the spread of the coronavirus and to mitigate the unprecedented socio-economic fallout. We are witnessing national responses aimed at addressing an international crisis. It seems to be a wide-spread perception that the EU is not providing sufficient support in tackling the issue.

In this analysis, compiled on the occasion of Europe Day, I argue the exact opposite: In its areas of competence, the EU has already delivered substantial initiatives aimed at tackling the coronavirus crisis. The Member States, however, have been preventing the EU from tapping its full potential in supporting its 450 million citizens.

The coronavirus, the shortcomings in global governance, and the EU’s limited competencies

I form part of a generation of Europeans that has grown up in a globalised world with international issues that can no longer be dealt with at the national level. We have seen national responses fail in the face of climate change, the financial crisis, and the challenges posed by migratory flows – just to name a few areas. The EU as a supranational organisation derives its competencies from the transfer of decision-making powers from EU capitals to Brussels

Specifically in the field of health policy, the Member States have been refusing to transfer such competencies. The Member States still hold the primary responsibility for organising and delivering health services and medical care. EU health policy aims at complementing national health policies, and streamlining health protection in all EU policy fields. EU law provides for the EU to adopt health legislation in relation to the protection of public health (Art. 168 TFEU), the approximation of laws (Art. 114 TFEU), and social policy (Art. 153 TFEU).

Confronted with the challenges posed by the spread of the coronavirus, EU Member States resorted to unilateral and uncoordinated actions. This resulted in panicky border closures and a virtual suspension of the Internal Market, including through national bans and restrictions on intra-EU exports of medical and protective products. Even leaving aside the aspect of proportionality of these measures, infections were already spread across the EU, so that these arrangements were not apt in effectively tackling the pandemic.

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rightly criticised, “[w]hen Europe really needed an all-for-one-spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response”. Although in the meantime some coordination and cooperation amongst the Member States has taken place, for weeks, patients have been dying in overcrowded hospitals in northern Italy, while Austrian and southern German hospitals (which had had the time to prepare) remained virtually empty. Similarly, when Italy was desperate to receive face masks and ventilators, instead of other EU Member States, it was China that responded. Currently, the main point of contention amongst EU leaders is the sensitive question of how to fund the EU-wide economic recovery – touching upon the core question of what European solidarity should look like.

The EU has delivered – contrary to public perception

Despite the insufficiencies in coordination and cooperation amongst Member States, national leaders are presenting themselves as competent coronavirus crisis managers, while carelessly underreporting the range of initiatives taken at the EU level – with the help of their own vote. The resulting public perception that the EU’s response to the crisis has been insufficient is further amplified by resembling mainstream media reports. Whereas most of these reports do identify the divisions amongst Member States as the key obstacle to joint EU action, what unhelpfully usually appears in the headlines is the notion that ‘the EU’ has failed.

Meanwhile, however, a considerable amount of EU initiatives to tackle the coronavirus crisis have been agreed. In its areas of competence, the EU has agreed on manifold actions to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, focusing on four priority deliverables: Limiting the spread of the virus, ensuring the provision of medical equipment, promoting research, and supporting the EU economy.

In order to help slow the spread of the virus (and to encourage Member States to re-open intra-EU borders), the EU has closed its external borders to non-essential travel. So-called ‘green lanes’ have been established to ensure the continued circulation of essential goods across the EU. To ensure the EU-wide allocation of medical equipment, the first-ever ‘RescEU’ stockpile of medical equipment and a joint international tender for Member States have been set up. Through research promotion, the EU in particular seeks to support the search for a vaccine, and to improve diagnostics, preparedness, and treatment.

While the tense discussion amongst Member States on how to fund the EU-wide economic recovery is still ongoing, the Commission is about to put forward an updated proposal for the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, including a stimulus package. To prevent further unilateral and uncoordinated action on the part of the Member States, the Commission has presented a roadmap for an EU-wide exit strategy.

The scope of the EU Solidarity Fund has been broadened to allow Member States to request financial assistance, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has committed to provide EUR 750 billion to relieve Member States’ debt during the crisis, along with quantitative easing and debt purchases. EU structural funds will be re-allocated, and the Commission has proposed state-supported short time work (‘Sure’) to allow employees to keep their job when companies run out of work. The European Investment Fund will issue guarantees to incentivise banks to provide up to EUR 8 billion of liquidity to European companies.

At an international pledging conference on 4 May 2020, organised in response to a call by the (spectacularly underfunded) World Health Organisation, and co-hosted by the European Commission and individual countries, with key supporters such as the Gates Foundation, Commission President von der Leyen registered international pledges of EUR 7.4 billion to be fed into the collaborative development and universal deployment of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. Although the initiative is imperfect (including in view of the absence of the US and the fact that the EU calculated in previously dedicated funds), with this move, the EU has positioned itself as a leader in global cooperation on the matter.

To counter the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus, the EU institutions have been engaging with social media companies. Moreover, legislation is on its way to temporarily waive the rule that otherwise obliges airlines to operate their planned slots to keep them the following season, aimed at helping airlines reduce their costs in times of significantly lower demand.

A lack of response on the part of the EU in tackling the coronavirus crisis is therefore an ill-founded claim – although, as always, more can be done.

The case for a transfer of competencies in the field of health policy

70 years after the Schuman Declaration, it is therefore my expectation as a young European citizen that Member States jointly address the coronavirus crisis and its immense expected socio-economic fallout by deferring national egoisms and making appropriate use of the EU – although incomplete and notably not without shortcomings itself - as a unique supranational organisation to the benefit of all Europeans.

There is a significant risk in a situation where EU Member States would fail the test to provide an appropriate joint response for all Europeans at the EU level. Such failure may result in an even more disastrous socio-economic fallout, greater inequality and a further increase in political fragmentation and nationalist-populism. This may damage the EU’s relevance in the long term – both to its Member States internally, as well as on the global stage.

For the medium-term future, it is my hope that this crisis will lead Member States to acknowledge the essential value of the EU in filling a part of the gap in the current global governance structure. For the EU to live up to this role in the field of health policy, Member States will need to transfer the relevant decision-making powers to the EU level. In my view, the glass is half-full: the opportunity is there, and Member States will only need to seize it.

On this note, I wish you a Happy Europe Day!

Laura Semmler is a Senior EU Policy Officer practising in the broader area of EU policy and regulatory affairs, with a particular focus on advising foreign governments.