- By Liam Gibson
The rapid and profound spread of the coronavirus poses new challenges for citizens across Europe and the world. To contain the virus and overcome the current crisis, European solutions are needed. A collective response is necessary to reestablish trust in Europe’s capacity for action, also beyond the duration of the pandemic.
The lack of a common European strategy as a direct response to the crisis has been disappointing: EU member states relied on uncoordinated national actions. Responses came slow and late, illustrating the fragility of cross-border cooperation in times of crisis. The EU Commission offered to help national systems get emergency supplies as early as end of January, but member states present at the Health Security Committee saw no need for this.
When hit by COVID–19 in March, national governments issued export bans on medical protection gear instead of providing support to neighbouring countries where medical equipment was more urgently needed. These restrictions were later lifted but still serve as an example of the inward-looking national responses to the European crisis. Furthermore, the arbitrary imposition of border closures and controls poses a threat to the safety and the prosperity the EU project has established over the last decades.
The economic fallout caused by the coronavirus will need to be addressed at Union level
These measures call into question Europe’s fundamental freedoms and jeopardise economic growth, employment, prosperity and supply security – all of which has a detrimental impact on the functioning of the Single Market. What also threatens the European project is that national governments have been utilising the crisis to undermine democratic structures and the rule of law, as in the case of the emergency law recently passed in Hungary and the changes to electoral law in Poland. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but by no means do they justify a violation of the basic values of the European Union. The EU needs more democracy in times of crisis, not less.
With those drawbacks in mind, a strong, united European response is now needed. The current pandemic is a test for European cohesion and solidarity. But the extent to which the EU is able to re-assert common policymaking largely depends on the willingness of the member states. European institutions should not be blamed for a lack of response in areas where they were not given many competences. Instead, stronger competences at EU level are needed to allow for an effective response to the crisis, especially with regard to public health and crisis management.
Member states will need to coordinate their actions when it comes to developing exit plans and lifting the containment measures in place. It is also paramount that the EU-27 stop arbitrary border controls. Europe must be able to control its external borders to an extent that safeguards the Single Market and Europe’s fundamental freedoms, i.e. the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour.
The financial consequences of the crisis can only be estimated at this point, but it is already clear that they will be devastating. Therefore, strong investments are needed to tackle the economic crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. In the context of the EU, this means that the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus will need to be addressed at Union level. Solidarity and solidity walk hand in hand.
The EU needs to work towards the introduction of a new instrument to monitor the state of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in all member states
To cope with this exceptional crisis, we need to strengthen the EU budget, as it allows for the necessary investments and at the same time provides democratic control over the funds. Given the increasing challenges facing the EU – also looking beyond the corona crisis – the current financial framework is insufficient in terms of its size and priorities. European Movement Germany, for instance, demands an EU budget exceeding 1% of the member states’ gross national income, and flexibilisation and adaptation of the budget to policy areas that pave the way to a more sustainable future of Europe. Both the expenditure and revenue sides of the EU budget need to be optimised, including a new scheme for own resources.
Faced with attempts to undermine European values, both politicians and civil society need to make a concerted effort to uphold and promote European values and fundamental rights: the EU institutions need to ensure a consistent application of the rule of law mechanism (Article 7 TEU) and work towards the introduction of a new instrument to monitor the state of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in all member states. The next MFF should explore the scope for financial sanctions or the award of cohesion funds managed by the European Commission linked to compliance with the rule of law.
Notwithstanding the immense suffering the crisis has caused, recent weeks have also shown many examples of European solidarity. That is what we have to focus on and strengthen. Member states need to overcome their national egoisms and send strong signals for mutual support and coordination instead. Cross-border cooperation at all levels between organisations, including democratic and representative associations and federations, are needed. Decision-makers from politics, business, media and social forces need to work together and learn from one another. Only then can we hope to ultimately overcome this crisis, with the true potential of the European project.
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