by Jesmond Saliba, Nathanael Muscat, Keith Zahra
As the world grapples with the spread of the novel coronavirus, politicians, political experts, social media commentators and the general public have chastised the European Union for supposedly failing to take quick, decisive and financially strong action at the onset of the pandemic.
These opinions were also fuelled by the constant stream of political accounts which recent studies have shown as to having originated from Russia any had China, two countries which have all to gain from an increased dose of anti-EU sentiment. Such campaigns find fertile ground with sectors of the population around the continent who harbour right-wing, anti-global or plainly anti-European sentiments.
Why has the EU abandoned us? Where is the EU when you need it? Such questions have been commonly aired online during these past couple of months. Admittedly, the initial reaction in Brussels has been rather slow, but it would be too simplistic to attempt to answer such questions on that basis.
These questions, however, expose an unfortunate misunderstanding of the basic tenets of the Union. What is the European Union after all? Analysing the many social media debates on the issue, there is a perhaps significant chunk of the population, even in Malta, that looks at the EU as a grand political power able to direct matters from Brussels, order its Members around and shower the continent with the necessary monies to sort things out. While over the past years, members have granted Brussels powers to lead on issues such as free trade, customs, air quality, food standards and others, it remains largely a conglomeration of member states. On many crucial issues, whether its foreign policy, taxation, even many aspects of health, and most importantly on its budget, the EU either has very limited responsibility or else whatever it wants to do requires a positive nod from all the flags behind the (virtual) table.
This means that the EU is no external body which can ‘do’ or ‘refuse to do’ something, but ultimately the addition of what its Member States want. Take health: the primary responsibilities of organising and delivering health services and medical care remain strongly the prerogative of its member states.
This means that the EU is no external body which can ‘do’ or ‘refuse to do’ something, but ultimately the addition of what its Member States want.
Financially, lots of misconceptions abound. While the multi-million annual budgets tend to impress us living in small countries, and used to meagre budgets, at some EUR 148 million in 2019, the EU budget represents no more than 1% of the total income of all EU Member States. The EU budget, for crying out loud, is roughly the size of Austria’s, hardly a European super-state.
When earlier in March, Italy made an urgent appeal for help in sourcing medical supplies, including masks, many blamed the EU for sitting back while indeed it was a number of member states that had expressed reluctance to provide support.
In this context, it is precisely because the continent needs more Europe that the Union was not able to immediately start dishing out the urgent help required by countries such as Italy. It is, yet again, not the first time in history, that countries around the continent attempt to shift the blame to the organisation for home-made failures or actions they are unwilling to take.
Despite the limited political and financial power, the European Commission has, it did come out with a historic job-saving, economy-boosting €100 billion solidarity fund. It has taken a flurry of initiatives, including making all remaining EU funds at the disposal of member states to use in the fight against the pandemic and its economic effect, allowed the use all available remaining funds from this year’s EU budget to help to respond to the needs of European health systems, approved state aid measures in record time and provided a massive financial boost to research on the virus.
After long hours of debate, EU finance ministries managed to cough up half a trillion euro in a rescue package described as unprecedented to support economies not only to bear the current economic drought but also to support the revival.
The monies are complemented by courageous fiscal actions such as the suspension of the Stability Pact, a relaxation of state aid rules and the historic triggering of the ‘general escape clause’ allowing national governments to inject into their economies as much as is required.
Special funding of tens of millions of euros has also been set aside for vaccine research as well as innovation projects related to the broader consequences of coronavirus. On the medical side, the Commission is helping directly to boost production of medical equipment and expediate its distribution to all regions as necessary.
Yet, if Europe is required to do more, it must be allowed to do more. The Covid-19 Response plan is offering a rare glimpse into the significance of European collaboration at citizen-level. From the scheme to keep people in their jobs to direct grants for companies, and from the repatriation of thousands of stranded people to the clampdown on fraudulent ‘cures’, the Commission is arguably as close to its citizens as we have ever witnessed. But there is no further room for manoeuvre. Europe needs the right tools if it is to do more.
If Europe is required to do more, it must be allowed to do more.
Two examples come to mind on inspiration of the current pandemic. But, for this to happen, fundamental changes have to take place. A strong European response mechanism, which is not limited to a frankly ridiculous 1% must be in place to support nations at times of greatest need. Secondly, with the removal of borders and millions of people working, studying and travelling in other Member States, our health has become a common concern. Hence, Europe needs a strong health agency, empowered and financed to take decisions rather than merely coordination with individual countries do.
The pandemic calls on committed Europeans to take this project further, for the benefit of the whole continent and its population. It is only by forging a stronger Union that has the political strength and financial clout to act that the continent will emerge in more united in the coming years.
As Winston Churchill quipped back in 1946 at the end of World War II, it is time again to “Let Europe arise”.
Jesmond Saliba, Nathanael Muscat, Keith Zahra