After having faced sharp criticism from within the EU over its inactivity in assisting the country’s within the bloc that have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission is still struggling to find its footing when it comes to enacting far-reaching and legally enforceable measures that will help reduce the threat of the ongoing outbreak.
Christine Lagarde, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) President, has come under fire for saying that the national governments, and not the ECB, are responsible for protecting highly indebted Eurozone countries.
The European Commission, however, is viewing the crisis as an opportunity to try and prove that it can act quickly and effectively. To that end, the Commission has been signalling that Brussels is ready to make a last-ditch effort to secure itself an important role in the fight against the pandemic.
“It is not possible to stop the virus, but it is of utmost importance to slow its spread,” Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President said on March 13, comments that came just before the EU executive formed a Corona response team and pledged to provide medical equipment and funds for research and the development of a coordinated European response to COVID-19.
Team of experts
In order to form a coordinated medical response to the COVID-19 emergency, the Commission launched on March 17 an advisory panel comprised of epidemiologists and virologists which will be chaired by von der Leyen and EU’s health chief, Stella Kyriakides.
The panel of scientific experts is charged with creating EU guidelines for science-based and coordinated risk-management measures that will be used to advise the EU executive including identifying and mitigating any scientific or medical gaps that may hinder the containment of the virus to recommending policy measures for handling the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The panel’s work will complement and capitalise on the work of the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control,” Kyriakides said just the panel was set to hold its first official meeting on March 18.
After several of the EU’s 27 members opted to close their borders, which restricted the freedom movement, von der Leyen slammed the unilateral shutdown as a violation of the bloc’s open border principles before adding that the measures may be ineffective.
For countries having imposed unilateral border checks, von der Leyen noted that although “certain controls may be justified” such measures could threaten the EU’s supply chain and could lead to shortages across the whole of Europe. She has urged the countries to ensure that flow in the internal market “remains open”.
On March 16, the Commission presented its guidelines for what it called “effective border management”, the aim of which is to protect the public’s health while preserving the integrity of the internal market to prevent medical equipment and food shortages. According to the Commission, strict border controls “should be applied in a proportionate manner and with regard to people’s health”.
“The members of the EU should designate priority lanes for freight transport,” tweeted Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, tweeted on March 16.
Produce more protective equipment, keep in the EU and share
In a video released on March 15, von der Leyen highlighted the main issues that the bloc is facing as a result of the outbreak, which is spreading rapidly across the continent.
The Commission is working closely with industries to speed up the production of protective equipment and is pushing its constituent members to keep all essential equipment inside the EU and share to it with other European nations. Brussels said it wanted to push for more cooperation after France, Germany and the Czech Republic restricted exports of medical supplies to other EU countries. As a result, the EU’s executive body adopted on March 16 an export authorisation scheme to protect the bloc’s supply of medical equipment in the event that the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.
“Medical goods can only be exported to non-EU countries with the explicit authorisation of Europe’s governments,” the Commission said.
Von der Leyen stressed the need for protecting those fighting against the spread of the virus and noted that ant measure taken by an individual country can only be effective if they are coordinated with neighbouring states.
Mitigating the socio-economic impact
A €37 billion boost from the EU budget under the Cohesion Policy is one of the key measures that have been announced by the European Commission as part of the campaign to help mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We will do whatever is necessary to support Europeans and the European economy,” von der Leyen said after the Commission predicted that the Eurozone will most likely go into a deep recession this year.
The EU’s executive body is likely to ease the bloc’ fiscal rules by partially suspending budget commitments for countries that have been severely hit by COVID-19. “We are not suspending the stability and growth pact. We are using the flexibility that is there in the stability and growth pact,” Valdis Dombrovskis, EU Vice President and the Commissioner for Economic Affairs, said.
In order to avoid a negative lasting impact on the economy from the “temporary shock” of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Commission’s priorities include the provision of liquidity in companies, and in particular in SMEs, through the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative.
On March 17, the Commission said it had sent a proposal to the EU27 for a temporary framework for state aid approval, one that would enable each EU member to use the full flexibility foreseen under state aid rules to tackle the situation. To avoid “serious disturbances across the EU economy,” the Commission will pre-authorise some countries’ operations that are aimed at supporting companies and SMEs.
Research on COVID-19
With the number of confirmed Coronavirus cases across the bloc on the rise, the Commission has secured an additional €37.5 million for research on vaccine development, treatment, and diagnostics.
“We are providing an extra €37 million for new research to fight COVID-19. This will enable 17 projects to tackle the outbreak on several fronts: vaccines, diagnostics, treatments, and medical systems,” said Stella Kyriakides, EU’s health chief.