During the last few months, we have seen countless articles written on certain aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eeven people who do not normally follow world news are knowledgeable in the virus policy of certain countries, be it the United States’ stimulus checks or Sweden’s controversial approach.
Every news media shares up-to-date information on the virus policy of neighboring countries, and we can follow live updates on the infection and recovery rates of these neighbors too. We hear most from the World Health Organization, which is one of the main contributors to the COVID discussion.
One can easily forget another international organization that normally has a big impact on our everyday life, yet we have little knowledge about their virus policy. I am talking here, of course, about the European Union.
This article is meant to inform readers about what steps the EU as a collective took in response to the pandemic. How did the EU pass the test of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The EU had recognized COVID-19’s threat potential in January, and started discussing it, although with few resources. The first measure regarding the coronavirus was passed in the Council on January 28. That is when the Integrated Policy Crisis Response (IPCR), – which was introduced first as a European reaction to the shock of the 9/11 events – was activated in Information Sharing mode.
This, on paper, makes it possible for EU bodies to collect important information regarding the crisis. After a seemingly uneventful February, the next measure was the full activation of IPCR, allowing EU decision-making bodies to conciliate and call for emergency meetings any time.
On March 18, the Council approved a portion of the EU budget to be used for crisis response, and on March 23, the ECOFIN (the council of member states’ finance ministers) agreed on the relaxation of EU finance rules.
On March 30, the Council ruled part of the Cohesion Fund to be used in the fight against the pandemic, up to EUR 37 million.
These March provisions were necessary for the EU to be able to use its resources to create a COVID-19 response program. Apart from that, also on March 30, a regulation protecting flight companies was passed, changing air travel rules so that the companies can actually follow them.
The European pandemic-discussion started in February and a quasi-decision-making process took place from mid-March to early April. As a result, on April 8, the Council adopted the first major EU crisis management program, dubbed ‘Team Europe’. The adoption of the second large-scale safety net program developed by the Euro group was approved by the Council on April 23.
This safety net program has been activated gradually since May, starting with the SURE program, which aims to help countries combat unemployment.
Up until the writing of this article, the latest important development was the adoption of a further EUR 3 billion package on May 20, providing financial aid to a number of developing EU partner countries such as Ukraine, who are the biggest beneficiaries of the package.
In February-April, EU decision-makers discussed the situation of a number of other sectors: fishing, air travel, agriculture, justice, military operations, sport, tourism, energy. However, steps were only taken to help air travel (March 30) and fishing (April 14).
In May, during the gradual lifting of quarantine in several countries, travel and transport sectors were examined closely, and further policy changes were implemented in the areas of maritime and railway transport, aiming to preserve travel companies in all forms of travel.
After fishing, agriculture was the second sector to receive EU support, just one month after the fishing regulation, on May 13.
Today, on June 19, the Council will discuss the European Union’s Recovery Fund, proposed by the Commission on May 27. This program is to be a defining factor of the EU’s COVID policy in the coming year.
Team Europe and the Safety Net Program
The Council adopted the Team Europe program on April 8. There are four “priorities” associated with the program: 1) Limiting the spread of the virus; 2) Ensuring the supply of medical equipment; 3) Supporting medical research; and 4) Supporting the economy.
The budget of the package is EUR 20-22 billion. It comes from the EU budget, the Cohesion Fund, the European Investment Bank, and contributions from the Member States.
The package covers four main areas:
1. Disaster relief (EUR 502 million) – supporting the work of the WHO, the Red Cross, and other international organizations, providing medical care facilities, and assuring product circulation;
2. Research, health, clean water (EUR 2.8 billion) – support for medical research, funding for vaccine testing, providing care for refugees;
3. Economic and social assistance (EUR 12.3 billion) – support for small and medium-sized enterprises, lending of public sector investments;
4. Assistance to the EU’s neighbors (3 + 1.4 + 2.4 = EUR 6.8 billion) – direct grants to the Balkans, Asia, Latin America, and other regions, especially Africa.
The second major measure is the EUR 540 billion (!) safety net package prepared by the Euro group, adopted by the Council on April 23, with the aim of making the grants available from June 1, 2020. The three main areas of support are: workers, businesses, and Member States.
Proposals therein include EUR 200 billion in business support from the European Investment Bank, focusing on small and medium-sized enterprises; a crisis-management aid available to Member States equal to 2% of their GDP from the previous year; a soft loan from the EU budget to Member States worth EUR 100 billion; and the establishment of coordination institutions to deal with macroeconomic changes in both the current and the coming years.
So far, the aforementioned Member State aids have been implemented as planned, as the entirety of the program is being implemented gradually. The support package is available to countries until the end of this year.
I looked at the timing and policy schedule aspect of the EU’s response to the crisis, because it is a great way to observe how the administration of the European Union works under pressure. This also served as one of the bases for my evaluation.
The timeline shows that little action was taken at EU level against the epidemic between the end of January and the end of February. Until mid-February, the coronavirus has been primarily a regional problem in Asia, with a significant chance of becoming a global emergency.
Substantive EU regulatory work and decision-making began in March. For three consecutive weeks, three fiscal rules were amended to allow the adoption of the first comprehensive anti-epidemic measure, Team Europe, on April 8. This happened a month and a half after the great mortality increase in Europe.
Here, two types of evaluation are possible: on the one hand, we can argue that the EU has reacted too late, as three and a half months after the initial, Asian explosion in infection rate earlier this year, was the first serious comprehensive measure adopted, and adoption is still not tantamount to implementation.
It can be seen that although the IPCR was activated and there would have been an opportunity for closer cooperation, until now, only one measure per week has been decided on by EU bodies on average – hardly ever more than that.
On the other hand, we can also argue that the EU measure is intended to rather mitigate the consequent effects of the epidemic, for which the draft was still ready in time. Most of the measures deal with economic recovery, which is only now beginning to become relevant.
It should also be mentioned that two to three months is a very fast, almost record time compared to the administrative speed of the EU.
The fact that weeks have elapsed between two substantive meetings is also justified (especially in the case of the Council) by the fact that leaders of the countries were all busy with their local problems and could only spend seven days a week dealing with the pandemic. This is related to another important finding.
Regulatory action at EU level was minimal, and it was primarily aimed at and necessary for accepting funding for the Team EU package. The EU has used only distributive tools, and countries, as I mentioned above, have taken crisis management more into their own hands.
The “EU Solidarity in Practice” measures listed on the official site of the European Union, apart from the Team EU program, are aids organized by European countries among themselves multilaterally, without the direct involvement of the EU.
In addition, the European Union, as a platform for cooperation, has an important role to play, for example, between economic sectors and international trade bodies.
There’s been a tendency during the last few months where the EU appeared more as a community of sovereign states rather than a collective, and it emerged in the crisis primarily as a forum for conciliation between the countries’ leaders, and only secondarily as an independent regulatory entity.
In many cases, European-level objectives have been formulated for the uncertain future. We have often come across announcements in April about how we envisage dealing with the epidemic, and its consequences at some point in the future, rather than a policy focusing on the now.
On the one hand, it is fair to say that the European Union has not proved to be timely or effective in crisis management, but the reason for this is not to be found in the work ethics of EU officials, who seem to have worked continuously since the outbreak. Instead, organizational pitfalls, states’ own domestic challenges, and a slow administrative process were the main problems.
More importantly, however, the analysis of EU action must take place at a later date, as the main aim has been to preserve international economic and social stability, not to tackle the current health crisis. The European Union is not designed for crisis management, so, as opposed to the state government, the EU lacks the means to deal quickly with similar occurrences.
The implementation and impact assessment of the multi-billion-euro program packages described in this article can help make clear in the future in which areas of action the EU bodies are effective and in which areas less so.
As a result, tensions between Member States and the supranational level can be eased and legitimacy will be less called into question in areas where the EU can exercise its powers effectively. On the other hand, any European unification efforts will take place with European Union’s institutions also recognizing the limits of their own effectiveness in crisis situations.