The handling of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 provides valuable insights about how the EU functions and its governance. It is in many ways a textbook example of what the EU ca do and how it does it.
In all major crises, the European Council (EUCO) takes centre stage from the start. The reasons for this are simple: the European Council’s role as defined in the treaty is to provide overall political direction to the EU, it is composed of the most legitimate representatives of the Member States (and the President of the European Commission (EC)), it is the closest we have in the EU system to a form of collective government, and it is both an EU institution and a club of national leaders, which means that it can discuss issues regardless of whether there is a Community competence or not. This is important because the EU functions according to the principle that sovereignty lies with the Member States. The latter can, however, according to the principle of conferral, transfer competences to the EU level via European treaties, in toto, as is the case in the areas of agriculture, trade or the single currency, or in part, which is the case for most EU policies (mixed competences), or not at all. If we take the COVID-19 crisis, the responsibility for health matters stays with the Member States; this explains why Italy, when it was hit by the pandemic in early 2020, took a number of immediate measures to deal with a situation that did not allow for a long process of consultation with Brussels. But the crisis affected many other sectors than health, and a lot of them were partly or even totally within the competence of the EU: the Single market, transport and energy policies, trade and others. Then there are areas like the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) where the EU can act, but only via intergovernmental cooperation.
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