Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

MEP: Constituents are our window into this tragedy

  • DIY posters in Berlin, March 2020. They read: 'Wash Hands. Call Grandma. Call Grandpa' (Photo: Matt Tempest)

Constituents are our window into the tragic disruption of coronavirus.

Nurses left without protective equipment, lorry drivers stranded at borders, young gig workers fearing eviction, struggling small businesses ‒ all reach out to me with a single question: Can Europe do something?

Read and decide

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To an extent, my answer is bound to disappoint. The European Union has a woefully small room for manoeuvre in a public health crisis: healthcare is a national competence.

Despite starkly limited resources, Europe did swing into action. It was belated and much damage was already done, but unlike other world powers, the EU did not sink into public denial.

RescEU is building a strategic stockpile of ventilators and medical equipment. Crossborder cooperation to treat intensive care patients from France's 'Grand Est' region is exemplary and should inspire a wider mechanism for burden-sharing.

The European Investment Bank mobilised €40bn of financial support, the Corona Response Investment Initiative an additional €37bn. Much remains to be done to avoid a Great Depression ‒ we need plans, ambition and solidarity.

My colleague Luis Garicano proposes a comprehensive package including EU-wide income protection and sharing the costs of containment measures.

Easing the chaos after panicky border closures, the EU Commission published guidelines for border management, recommended green lanes for lorries. This could prevent food and medicine shortages, industries collapsing like dominos.

There are many more EU measures to protect lives and livelihoods. But there's one major caveat. Hospital staff at the frontlines or small businesses calling their banks don't know about these options.

The EU is singularly ineffective in making itself visible. Let's call it Batman-style statecraft: a force for good, in disguise. Brussels has few direct links to citizens and governments are keen to play gatekeeper, taking credit for EU action (and, sadly, diverting funds to their pockets sometimes).

In crisis, this is a recipe for disaster.

People on the ground need to see that they can rely on Europe. We need more direct links, but an even quicker improvement would be better communication.

In times like these, fake news can kill. Our Renew Europe COVID Team called for an Information Task Force and an official communication channel to counter disinformation.

The commission should create a hotline with real-time information.

MEPs are 'messengers'

We, MEPs, should be messengers: channel constituents' needs, ensure programs promptly reach them, find each bottleneck between a nurse and a protective mask, a business and an emergency loan.

Let's talk about how national actions fail.

Europe is an excellent scapegoat because its voice is muted. Very few are calling out the absurdity of EU-shaming while it was national selfishness blocking European capacity-building.

Governments are under duress to act but they are ineffective alone ‒ so they resort to flailing, counterproductive or dangerous moves. Viktor Orban's power grab it the most extreme example.

This is unacceptable. All of us in EU decision-making need to speak up for common solutions. As MEPs, we pledged to be the voice of Europe at home and the voice of home in the EU. We need to turn into megaphones.

A more visible EU puts pressure on executives. People need to know that they are entitled to European help ‒ seamless transit, financial support, medical equipment ‒ and they will demand it themselves.

We are reminded what it means to have a European Union in the first place.

The EU is the food on our supermarket shelves shipped through a thick cobweb of integrated supply chains. The EU is our livelihood from millions of jobs that exist because of the common market.

And we are only as strong as our weakest member.

This everyday face of Europe is often invisible, taken-for-granted. As we watch it falling apart, it is suddenly clear where we are heading without it: a beggar-thy-neighbour dystopia.

Imagine a parallel universe, where crisis strikes, but we are prepared. It's easy if you try.

The commission activates emergency powers, mobilises help for Italy and other hotspots in their hour of need.

Our European Health Agency ramps up medical supply, testing and research. Through smart coordination, we stringently reduce mobility, without disrupting connectivity.

We have the budgetary autonomy for an EU-wide version of Denmark's much-praised program where the state covers 75 percent of salaries if employers do not lay them off.

We enact a Europe-wide freeze on evictions, so people do not lose their homes in the midst of a public health emergency. We design an ambitious recovery plan based on solidarity and following the priorities of our Green Deal. And we have a well-functioning public sphere to tell all that to citizens.

Right now, we are about halfway between utopia and dystopia. This is our watershed moment. We need to imagine another Europe ‒ and fight for it with everything we've got.

Author bio

Katalin Cseh is a Hungarian MEP with the Renew liberal group.

Disclaimer

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

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