Covid-19 pandemic shows how fragile the EU is

Not only has the new coronavirus catapulted us out of our everyday lives, but the way the EU is handling the COVID-19 pandemic has made its inability to take action in times of crisis painfully apparent. Just as people are stranded at airports and railway stations, any hope that Europe is capable of pulling together has also been stranded in the last few weeks.

"Station Europe" in the former railway station Brussels-Luxembourg

Just a few short weeks ago, nobody would have thought the situation currently prevailing in the European Union remotely possible. The images we have been watching, speechless and anxious, for several days are highly dramatic. The numbers of cases and casualties are climbing steeply, the healthcare systems are stretched beyond capacity for the foreseeable future, or soon will be. Italy, France and Spain are the worst hit at the moment, but hospitals in other member states are also running short of intensive care beds, healthcare staff, medical supplies and protective equipment. The introduction of border controls in the Schengen area has led to chaos, excessive waiting times and disruptions to supply chains. In the centres of most European capitals, the streets have been emptied of people by the restrictions on the freedom of movement brought in by many countries. The self-employed and businesses are fearful for their futures; the various scenarios of the effects of the crisis on the economy are devastating. 

Disparities between national measures

Not only has the new coronavirus catapulted us out of our everyday lives, but the way the EU is handling the COVID-19 pandemic has made its inability to take action in times of crisis painfully apparent. Disparities between the timing and nature of the measures set in place by the 27 national governments to slow the spread of the virus speak volumes about the status of the EU. Just as people are stranded at airports and railway stations, any hope that Europe is capable of pulling together has also been stranded in the last few weeks. It is impossible to shake off the uncomfortable feeling that several heads of state or government are competing to see who can make the most sovereign decisions and flatten the corona curve the fastest. The lack of crisis management at EU level, the inadequacy and timidity of any solidarity between member states and the retreat into national mindsets and egotism have prompted many citizens to wonder exactly what role the European Union has in the current crisis.

(In)capable of action? EU competences in the event of a pandemic 

One explanation for the lack of coordination lies in the fact that healthcare policy is a matter for the competence of the member states. Pursuant to article 168 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), the European Union’s role is to complement the member states’ policies and to take responsibility for monitoring, early notification and tackling serious cross-border health risks. In this context, the member states are required to coordinate their policies and programmes. 
The legal framework for the epidemiological monitoring and control of infectious diseases across the European Union was revised in 2013, with the “Decision on serious cross-border threats to health”. The aim of the Decision is to support cooperation and coordination between the member states, to enable a better prevention and control of the spread of serious diseases across the borders of the member states. The EU has at its disposal several instruments for monitoring, scientific consultation and European policy coordination and although these have been put to use in the current crisis, it is clear that they have not yet been exhausted. 

Representatives of the health authorities consult one another within the Health Security Committee (HSC). The job of the HSC is to coordinate the preparedness and response planning of the member states in consultation with the European Commission. The responsibility at EU level for the monitoring and risk assessment of threats to human health from infectious diseases lies with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The network for epidemiological surveillance is coordinated by the ECDC. The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) is part of this network. On top of this comes the Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM), which aims at increased cooperation in the event of emergency situations and disasters, inside and outside the EU. Also important to mention is the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR). The IPCR is the mechanism of the Council for responding to cross-sector and complex crises with the aim of pan-European coordination at the highest political level. However, this set of mechanisms are only of any use if all member states are prepared to work together – and it is precisely this preparedness that has been in short supply in recent weeks.   

Admittedly, the IPCR was activated by the Croatian Presidency of the Council at the end of January for the purposes of intra-European coordination, but several media sources report that at their meeting in Brussels on 6 March, the health ministers were given nowhere near enough information on the measures taken in other member states. The EU made recommendations, but these apparently failed to resonate with the countries in question. Finally, individual risk assessments were carried out within the national government apparatuses and country-specific priorities were placed at front and centre. This return to self-centred crisis nationalism mentalities has so far blocked any coordination and cooperation at EU level. 

Crisis management: unilateral national approaches vs. European coordination

When the heads of state and government, together with Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde and Mário Centeno, undertook to step up consultation amongst themselves in a video conference on 10 March, the basis for joint trust was already damaged. Some Member States had already blocked the export of medical goods, even though a crisis-stricken Italy was already in desperate need of support from its European partners. Despite fresh pledges at the highest EU level, there were unilateral border closures, travel restrictions and quarantine measures. The proposal of the European Commission to bring in temporary travel restrictions on people entering the EU represents a desperate attempt to build a bit of structure into the chaos of unilateral national approaches. 
Over the last weeks, in daily telephone conferences between the ministers responsible for health care and domestic affairs, the Council has tried to improve coordination processes. A pan-European inventory of protective equipment and ventilators, and of the corresponding production and distribution capacities, is being carried out. The temporary national export restrictions on personal protective equipment have been lifted. The Commission has promised immediate assistance of an initial 7.5 billion euros to shore up the healthcare systems, small businesses and sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit and to relax European tax rules. In a video conference between Mário Centeno and the finance ministers on 16 March, the President of the Eurogroup referred to the credit facility of up to 410 billion euros made available by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), with a view to reassuring the markets. Solidarity-based financial and economic policy announcements were confirmed the next day, following a virtual meeting of the European Council, along with the aforementioned initiative of the Commission to bring in temporary restrictions on entering the Schengen zone. The Croatian Presidency of the Council convened a virtual meeting of the transport ministers on 18 March, with a view to maintaining the free movement of goods within the European single market. On the same day, following her initial hesitancy, the President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, stated that “extraordinary times require extraordinary action”. The firewall of the European Central Bank, a bond purchase scheme with an envelope of more than 750 billion euros, aims to counter any speculation as to the insolvency of Eurozone countries. The need for a “resolute, ambitious and coordinated political response” to cushion severe economic consequences was emphasised by the finance ministers on 23 March.

However, these statements will only have any effect if the governments of the Member States leave their national egotism behind. The virtual meeting of the European Council on 26 March unfortunately once again highlighted the discord between the heads of state or government concerning joint fiscal policy measures to mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic. While the hard-hit countries of the South, Italy and Spain, are calling for common European state bonds (Eurobonds or corona bonds), as they did during the euro crisis, this approach comes up against the categorical rejection of Germany and the Netherlands. In the coming weeks, the finance ministers of the Eurogroup are scheduled to work on proposed economic and financial policy solutions, yet the agreement of the European Council on the so-called corona bonds currently seems unlikely. In this context, the position of the German federal government is ignorant and lacking in solidarity, as it refuses to acknowledge the enormity of the situation in the South. The fact that patients from Italy and France are now being treated in several German hospitals certainly sends out an important signal, but it is not enough.

The EU faces major challenges 

In recent weeks, it has become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will overwhelm our healthcare systems to the point of collapse and will almost certainly plunge the entire world into a deep economic crisis. The reactions and ill-coordinated measures we have seen so far also risk deepening social inequalities within the EU, crippling democratic decision-making processes and endangering European cohesion. One only needs to look at the example of Hungary to see that the fight against the spread of the coronavirus can be weaponised by heads of state or government to support the disintegration of the rule of law. One emergency law issued by the Hungarian government was the cause of much concern and criticism in Brussels, as it allows the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, to govern by decree for an unlimited time and to condemn the Parliament to an “enforced break”. The law was passed this Monday.

Between now and 31 December 2020, there are many important decisions on the EU’s agenda, several of which will most probably be postponed due to the pandemic, meaning that emergency plans will need to be developed: the new Multi-Annual Financial Framework (2021-2027) is to be agreed upon, as well as the EU’s future relationship with the United Kingdom. The Commission’s proposals on the European Green Deal and the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum are supposed to be negotiated in and between the institutions. The Commission is currently working a double shift, to ensure that the political processes can continue. The European Parliament is also testing out new solutions to avoid any delay in the coming weeks and to keep its democratic decision-making process functioning: in an historical plenary session on 26 March, the MEPs voted for the first time by email on the Commission’s proposed pan-European emergency measures, including the unblocking of 37 billion euros of EU funding from the cohesion fund and expanding the EU solidarity fund. The Council is also choosing new ways of making its decisions: in a video conference on 24 March, the ministers for European affairs agreed to start access negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The long overdue decision on starting these negotiations was made by the European Council days later.

On 1 July 2020, Germany will take over the Presidency of the Council. During these times, the German government’s role will chiefly be that of moderator within the EU. Given the current developments and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the forthcoming Council Presidency will bring major challenges with it. Germany must do all in its power to encourage the EU to work together in solidarity to find a way out of crisis. In recent days, it has been pointed out several times that the management of a crisis often provides opportunities for the future. But we should be quite clear that crises do not necessarily make us stronger. The way the EU has dealt with the pandemic thus far betrays the fact that its cohesion is extremely vulnerable. It is our duty to do what we can to ensure that the crisis does not claim the EU itself as a victim.

The original has first been published in German on