Coronavirus: What the EU is Doing or, Rather, Should be Doing

In these troubled times we are living in, I hope that all our TEPSA partners, in the EU and the neighbourhood, are safe and healthy. Let’s hope that this difficult period will not last for too long.

I allow myself a couple of observations regarding the way the EU is dealing with the corona crisis. In this context I refer notably to the results of the European Council video conferences of 10 and 17 March.

First of all, of course, public health is essentially a national competence. Hence, no wonder that the answer of how to tackle this crisis, is determined in the first instance at the national level. The more so, since the health situation may differ from one member state to another and even within a single member state, from one region to another.

On the other hand, the spread of diseases does not stop at borders. More particularly the coronavirus, as has become abundantly clear, is a worldwide phenomenon. So, it is reassuring that at EU level at least an intensive coordination is taking place.  

What we notice, though, is that in our common efforts to cope with the fast spreading virus, many typical EU policy areas are affected, such as:

  1. Movement of Persons:
  • Travel restrictions, issued by the EU, for travelling from third countries to the EU;
  • The need for repatriation of EU citizens residing in third countries on their way home;
  • The unilateral introduction of internal border controls and travel restrictions within the EU;
  • The need to ensure the free passage of EU citizens travelling home from one member state to another.
  1. Movement of Goods:
  • Unilateral export prohibitions issued by individual member states for face masks;
  • EU measures restricting the export of health protection and assistance equipment;
  • Difficulties with regard to the purchase of medical equipment such as ventilators and protective masks;
  • The need to ensure the free passage of medicines, food and goods.
  1. The Socio-Economic Consequences of the Crisis:
  • The launching of national financial and economic support programmes for businesses;
  • The need for a coordinated EU policy response to the rapidly evolving situation, in particular for SME’s and specific sectors, and their employees;
  • Flexibility, shown by the Commission, when applying competition rules with regard to public procurement and state aid;
  • Flexibility, also shown by the Commission, of fiscal rules to facilitate measures necessary to adequately deal with the crisis (I refer to the Stability and Growth Pact).
  1. A Number of Crucial Accompanying Measures:
  • Promoting research, including in vaccine development;
  • The need for a more resolute civil protection mechanism;
  • Making available sufficient financial resources to combat all dimensions of the crisis.

What all these substance matters have in common, is that they are, directly or indirectly, linked to the functioning of the internal market. Therefore the implementation of one of the main, if not the most important, objectives of EU cooperation is at stake here.

So, in the interest of a smooth functioning of the internal market, a European approach is indicated. The more so, since we live in an emergency situation.

Now, the objective of a European approach has been explicitly included in President Charles Michel’s conclusions of the video conference of the European Council of 10 March. Furthermore, in an interview of 22 March with a Belgian broadcaster, Michel  advocated the establishment of a European Crisis Centre, to better manage crises such as the corona crisis in the future.

That certainly is a good idea. Although details have not (as yet) been provided, the reference seems to be to a coordinating mechanism.

However, is that enough?

The problem in all this is that actions of member states when implementing commonly adopted decisions too often results in different outcomes in each member state. Here we only have to refer to the long, in fact very long, traffic jams of truckers occurring these days at the land borders of several of our member states.

So, we definitely need more than a pure monitoring system managed at EU level, for example by the Commission.

What we really should consider in times of crisis, is a transfer of concrete implementing responsibilities to a European authority.

The migration crisis has already demonstrated that the immense problems that have arisen in protecting the EU external border in the Mediterranean justify the transfer of that responsibility to a European border agency, in that case the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG). Such an approach is to be preferred over leaving the responsibility – as is the situation at present – at the national level, with the EBCG only assisting.

Equally, with regard to the management of internal border controls, of goods and persons, we must consider – again, in times of crisis – transferring the responsibility for implementing commonly agreed restrictions to a European authority. Here a European Border Guard could play a role as well.

Also the Union should act when issues are at stake where the EU is better placed than the member states to achieve common objectives. An example is the acquisition of goods and equipment, especially when these materials have to be purchased in third countries.

Such proposals do not simply aim at a shift of competences, from the national to the European level. They serve the objective of developing well-functioning structures at EU level, reflecting unity, solidarity and common sense.

In the recent past we have experienced a worldwide financial crisis and a migration crisis. These days we are caught in the corona crisis that may last for a long time and will have – that is already certain – huge socio-economic and, probably also, political consequences. It needs no explanation that similar crises can happen again in our globalised world.

So, we have to prepare ourselves for future catastrophes, of whatever nature. A more EU oriented approach should be obvious, and will moreover give a new incentive to cooperation at Union level.

Best wishes to all of you, and take care,

Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General