Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Interview

2020: EU solidarity tested in face of Covid-19 pandemic

  • 'This is a permanent battle,' warned Charles Michel, president of the European Council - adding the pandemic has revealed the need to increase the role of the EU in healthcare (Photo: European Union)

Since Covid-19 was first recorded late in 2019 in China, the virus has quickly spread around the world - upending everyday life and testing the world's response in a global crisis.

The pandemic rapidly revealed that the EU and its member states were not prepared for a medical and humanitarian crisis of such dimensions.

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When decisive and coordinated action from EU institutions and member states was most needed to respond to the first outbreaks, particularly the one in Italy, the bloc struggled to create a common and timely response to the pandemic.

This is partly explained by the fact that, under its treaties, the EU still has no direct or shared competencies in the area of health.

As a result, some member states introduced unilateral measures, such as export bans on some medical supplies or the closure of borders - revealing a glaring lack of European solidarity during the first months of the pandemic.

"EU leaders took some decisions that were not really in line with the European perspective," the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, told EUobserver, referring to the export bans of certain medical gear seen in Germany, France, and the Czech Republic back in March.

"At the beginning, some countries thought that it was possible to win the battle against the virus at the national level. But in only a few days, they all understood that this was not the right approach and more cooperation was needed," Michel added.

In a quick U-turn after these dark early days, EU countries started sharing medical equipment and doctors with other member states, jointly repatriating EU citizens from third countries and assisting neighbouring countries financially.

Without (yet) a safe and efficient Covid-19 vaccine, member states have been following two main strategies to fight the virus: imposing very restrictive measures (with massive socio-economic effects), such as lockdowns, and trying to keep the virus under control by testing, tracing and isolating.

"This is a permanent battle," Michel said, adding that the pandemic has revealed a need to increase the responsibilities of the EU in the healthcare sector.

"Now, there is more political will to work towards the European level [in the healthcare sector] - but aiming to have one European model for health systems is not realistic," he added.

While the global understanding about this new respiratory disease has steadily increased since the first outbreaks, how effectively Europe is responding to the current much-feared second wave of Covid-19 remains unclear - especially amid fears over 'vaccine nationalism', or the seizing of the first batches of doses by richer states that can pay the most or the quickest.

Meanwhile, the burden on healthcare systems all across the bloc, as a result of the surge in coronavirus infections, has triggered new nationwide lockdowns and restrictive measures in nearly all EU member states.

However, the second wave has also brought fresh hopes for an effective vaccine.

"Next year, we will probably have a vaccine, or several vaccines, for Covid-19, but it is quite certain that vaccination will take time, so now the priority is to make more progress in testing, tracing, and isolation while improving cross-border cooperation," said Michel.

The European Commission, on behalf of member states, has signed deals with companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK and Johnson & Johnson for their potential Covid-19 vaccines, while also negotiating with other pharmaceutical firms.

But EU leaders still have to agree on common criteria for the deployment of the vaccines (when a safe and effective shot is available), to ensure a fair distribution of vaccines both within the EU and beyond.

"This is an issue of concern. We need to work on this strategy in order to avoid a political battle in the next months that will make Europe look ridiculous," Michel warned.

There is an opportunity to make Europe stronger, "if we find the way to tackle the question of vaccines together," the Belgian politician added.

"Nevertheless, it is clear that even if we solve the problem of Covid-19 in some countries in the world, it will never be solved until we make sure that all over the world we can keep the virus under control," he made clear.

The pandemic, meanwhile, has also increased ongoing tensions between China and the US, resulting in a new geopolitical environment in which the role of the EU is still to be finally determined.

However, for the European Council president, the EU now has the opportunity to develop a so-called "strategic autonomy," transforming the bloc's economic and social model to make Europe "less dependent [on third countries] and more influential" in the global context.

"We want an open economy with international exchanges, but we need to rebalance the international relationships taking into consideration more fairness, and [a] level playing field," he added.

In its history, the EU has survived many crises and, undoubtedly, it will also survive the negative socio-economic consequences of Covid-19.

However, a key question remains: will the EU be able to establish timely 'solidarity' responses to future crises, in the face of such large-scale disruptions to life and economies?

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.

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