How well has the EU handled the pandemic?

We’re among many who criticise the UK Government’s tardy and nationalistic response to COVID19. But how has Brussels performed? And how has European solidarity been displayed – if at all? Here, in the final part of their LSE Europp blog article, Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos and Georgette Lalis draw some initial conclusions:

As is always the case, ‘Brussels’ is not hard to blame or criticise. On this occasion though, we argue that criticism must be confined to speed, rather than the substance. After a slow start, the EU has deployed its full panoply across a whole range of policy areas in an effort to counter the devastating consequences of this pandemic.

As Guy Verhofstadt rightly noted, ‘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 [sic] 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.’

The national tendencies of several member states were initially quite prominent. Nevertheless, as Commissioner Johansson reportedly noted, in this crisis EU member states acted like humans do – the first instinct being to fend for themselves, until they realised the value of cooperation. It remains to be seen whether the joint action that has followed will be effective but there are some lessons that the EU can already draw.

First, those who – like Bill Gates – have been arguing that the West ought to pay much more attention to this kind of issue, clearly have a point. Second, some of the capability that the Chinese state possesses and has mobilised to counter the virus, is clearly unwelcome and not feasible in Europe. This does not mean that Europeans cannot be educated in combatting pandemics so that the next one finds us better prepared. Third, capability-wise, Europe should invest in new medicines (i.e. R&D), testing materials, and the security of supply of key equipment so that they are available when needed. This also means increasing the production of critical equipment within the EU.

Fourth, the EU should strengthen its decision-making process in times of crisis to ensure efficiency, speed and visibility. The recent proposal made by the President of the European Council is a step in the right direction. Subsidiarity in normal times is fine in areas where competence is shared between levels of governance, but this pandemic is a cross-border issue that can be better handled at the European level with better co-ordinated and science-based decisions. If the ‘supranational’ centre remains weak or docile, those who stand to lose ultimately include EU citizens as well as the member states themselves. So, more confidence in the Commission’s capacity to coordinate would be welcome, as would more visibility in relation to its activity.

Finally, it is high time austerity policies were reviewed now that everyone knows that it has undermined public health systems’ ability to combat pandemics.

First published by LSE Europp