Wednesday

30th Sep 2020

Opinion

Time of coronavirus shows importance of being European

  • The European Commission announced measures to tackle the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak - but there is not much the EU can do more for now (Photo: European Commission)

It was already clear for a long time that when exceptional circumstances occur, the European Union can be pretty powerless: unable to bring the migration crisis under control, slow in fending off the financial crisis, incapable to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

But today, Covid-19 has exposed Europe's lack of thrust to a whole other level: Italy's cry for help to replenish something as basic as mouth masks, remained for weeks unanswered by all other European member states. It was China who rushed to help first.

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  • Guy Verhofstadt: We need to put in place a European response mechanism that will be activated every time a serious (health) crisis emerges. (Photo: European Parliament)

While some European countries were closing bars, restaurants, schools and even (partially) borders, others kept on carrying on as if nothing had happened. Donald Trump did not blink when discriminating in his travel ban between European countries.

Covid-19 showed how little it means to be European in times of crisis. It made one thing clear: the eurosceptic mantra of the 'European Superstate' becoming more ridiculous by the day.

People see the European Directorate for Health and Food Safety and the European Medicine Agency and think: they have the tools and money, why don't they act?

The answer is: because – just like Europol is not a real police force – these European health administrations do not have any real powers to act.

They are largely – you get it – "coordinating" bodies; assembling information and data from all over Europe and sending it back and forth between member states; the most what they can do, is issuing recommendations.

What is absolutely insufficient in times of pandemic. Then it is the 27 health ministers who take it over and are supposed to launch decisive collective action. Or more correctly – as we have seen – mainly fail to streamline their actions.

Fast and fundamental change

That is why Europe has to change fast and fundamentally.

First of all, by putting in place a European response mechanism that will be activated every time a serious (health) crisis emerges.

At the heart of such mechanism should be a single European Health Agency that is properly funded and has a mandate to act.

An agency that does more than just coordinating national efforts, but is able to take all emergency measures to keep Europeans safe. From issuing mandatory common rules to confine the crisis, over pooling medicines and hospital equipment, to the temporary closing (partially or complete) of our borders.

With such tools it would have been possible to limit the spread of Covid-19 after its outbreak in northern Italy. That same Italy would not need Chinese mouth masks to cover the urgent needs of its hospitals.

And moreover, it would avoid surreal and dangerous situations as the ones we have seen last weekend on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, when irresponsible Belgian citizens where massively visiting shops and pubs in Dutch towns to escape the closed ones in their own country.

The establishment of this European response mechanism and ditto European Health Agency, will need to go hand-in-hand with an increase of the security of our external borders.

Concretely, we have to transform Frontex into a real border and coast guard that is able to manage these borders properly, whether it be in times of big migration flows or pandemics.

To check and/or test who comes in and out of our Union – whether it is via train, (cruise) ship or plane – is crucial to slow down a pandemic, and this was only done recently; months after the outbreak of the virus.

But enhancing and reinventing the role of the European Union will not alone been crucial for health or security reasons.

The economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis will be massive. After we have managed to 'flatten the Covid-19 curve', we will face huge economic and budgetary problems.

And hopefully we have learned our lessons from the previous (financial) crisis. Hopefully, instead of hesitating and always acting 'too little, too late', this time we launch a big and decisive stability and recovery package from the beginning.

Such a package, besides using the existing fiscal and financial instruments must be based on the launch of a huge macro-economic stability program representing two or even more per cents of the European GDP.

It must be funded by the introduction of a new 'Euro Safe Asset', a common European asset, guaranteed by the European budget and actively supported by the ECB via its purchasing program. It will provide a low risk opportunity to institutional investors worldwide who will pump money into Europe's real economy towards recovery.

The number of transnational crises will only grow in the years to come and European member states can only overcome them when they act together.

Just like we did after 9/11, which triggered a common European response and culminated in the European arrest warrant.

Covid-19 obliges us to take it a step further and abandon the loose method of coordination, and forge a real Union that has the capacity and means to act as one.

Author bio

Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian MEP for Open Vld/Renew Europe, a former prime minister of Belgium and former leader of the ALDE group.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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