Thursday

29th Oct 2020

Analysis

Coronavirus: What EU can and can't do

  • Ursula von der Leyen (l), the German president of the EU Commission is a doctor by training (Photo: European Union)

The European Union has limited powers to tackle the pandemic - because member states oversee health.

The European Commission can coordinate and support member states on health. It can make recommendations and give advice. Everyone is free to ignore it.

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That rule is spelled out in article 168 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union. The treaty is the legal foundation and doctrine of the EU.

The article says the EU can "complement national policies" and "encourage cooperation".

The European Commission has three types of competences. It has an exclusive competence, shared competence, and a supporting competence.

The first competence is exclusive and includes trade and international agreements. Only the EU has a say.

The second competence is shared and covers areas like agriculture or the single market. Both the EU and member states have a say.

The third is a supporting competence, where power lies with the individual member states.

"The competences to support national measures and health falls within this third category," said Simona Guagliardo, a policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

"In the end, it all comes to the willingness of member states to translate these recommendations into common action," she added.

Similar comments were made by Steven Blockmans, an expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

He said EU states are reluctant to hand over powers on health to the supranational level.

"I think it is part and parcel of that part of the welfare state, which remains a national competence," he said.

He said social policy is a field that typically involves large budgets. Those national budgets are also liable to changes in government and political coalitions.

"In other areas, migration for example, you have these 'identity politics' still being defined greatly at national level, this is certainly the case here," he noted.

Philippe Schmitter, a political scientist, once floated the idea of creating a monthly allowance for all EU citizens.

But in his book The Passage to Europe, Luuk Van Middelaar says a European welfare state is barely conceivable.

He does note an exception; agricultural policy.

"The notorious system of import duties, subsidies, and support for producers is, in fact, a welfare state at the European level for one sector only: farming," he writes.

Solidarity clause

The Treaty also has a solidarity clause known as article 222.

The clause can be invoked in case an EU state is a victim of a terrorist attack or man-made or natural disaster. It obliges EU states to act jointly "in a spirit of solidarity" and to assist member states who asked for help.

It is up to the presidency of the Council - currently Belgium's Charles Michel - to take the lead coordinating an EU response.

The presidency must then make use of the so-called Integrated Political Crisis Response Arrangement. It means the EU must do everything it can, including possibly military means made available by member states, in order to support those under threat.

Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas reportedly proposed to launch the clause during a meeting on Monday (23 March) with counterparts to fight the virus.

"We should note that the EU's Integrated Political Crisis Response Arrangement is already activated," a European Commission spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday (24 March).

What has the Commission done, so far?

The European Commission has since the outbreak tasked itself to soften the blow of the pandemic on public health and the economy.

In mid-March, it set up of panel of scientists from six EU states to create guidelines and coordinate risk management. The panel is chaired by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a trained medical doctor.

Other measures include a plan to stockpile medical equipment like ventilators and protective masks.

It also presented guidelines on borders to keep goods flowing and proposed to activate a fiscal escape clause, bending EU economic rules as allowed under Treaty article 107, among other proposals.

EU commission to stockpile strategic medical gear

The EU executive wants to set up a reserve of cricial medical gear, which it would finance almost entirely. It could already be operational next week. There is a "scarcity" of such equipment globally.

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