What has the EU’s response been to the COVID-19 pandemic?
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has been leading the EU’s response and you may wish to follow her account on Twitter for regular video updates: https://twitter.com/vonderleyen
For information on the supports on offer from the Irish Government, please see here.
Below is an overview of the action the EU has taken.
Health is primarily a responsibility for member states: that means that EU national governments have the primary responsibility in responding to this crisis.
The EU institutions are moving to coordinate action across member states, something which was perhaps missing at the start of the crisis. Free movement and the single market were disrupted at the outset – with some member states restricting the export of products including vital medical equipment.
That period has passed. There is now greater coordination, such as developing “green lanes” to allow goods to easily cross borders, and the EU Commission has moved to prevent member states imposing restrictions on exports of key equipment to other member states. There are joint procurement calls for equipment such as masks and other personal protective equipment, which is intended to supplement efforts by the member states themselves.
The EU has put forward a number of legislative proposals to respond to the crisis. The first of these were approved by the European Parliament on 26th March, in a plenary session that involved remote voting to allow MEPs across the 27 member states to participate:
- Extending the EU Solidarity Fund to public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 outbreak
- Making a further €37bn available in a Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, from unspent EU regional funding, for countries to spend on health systems, small businesses and the labour market
- A measure allowing for the temporary suspension of rules that oblige airlines to use their slots at EU airlines, reflecting the falling demand in flights.
Another set of proposals was announced by the Commission on 2nd April, including:
- €100 billion in loans to member states to support employees keeping their jobs and wages and for businesses to keep their staff, called the SURE initiative
- The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, providing support to the most vulnerable in our societies
- Support for fishermen and farmers
- The EU Emergency Support Instrument, using money unspent in this year’s EU budget to support European health systems.
This week (16th and 17th April) the Parliament will be voting on some of these further measures. Over €3 billion is being made available in the EU budget, largely via the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) package, for countries to spend on the health consequences of the pandemic as well as to assist in purchasing equipment. Other measures being voted will allow the redeployment of unused funds in the EU budget.
For the medical devices sector, the Parliament will be voting for a delay in implementing the new regulation. The sector is rightly focusing on the COVID-19 crisis and the provision of crucial equipment such as ventilators. The new rules, which I shepherded through the Parliament, will be important to improve patient safety, but healthcare systems are under huge pressure. Now is not the time to change the rules. We need additional time for proper implementation.
There are also new measures for fisheries and aquaculture. The sector will get support in respect of the temporary cessation of fishing activities due to coronavirus and for aquaculture farmers who have faced the suspension of production and additional costs. There is also more flexibility for member states to re-allocate existing EU financial resources in this sector.
The EU has also assisted member states in repatriating EU citizens stranded abroad. You can read more details here.
The Commission has taken a number of additional measures to assist the response:
- Waiving VAT and import duties on key medical equipment so that EU countries can more easily access these products from outside the EU
- Support for research and innovation to tackle the spread of coronavirus and for potential treatments and a vaccine
- On 8th April, the Commission published a communication on the EU’s contribution to the global response to the pandemic.
The EU also has an important role in terms of responding to the economic and financial consequences of the public health crisis:
- The Commission is providing flexibility on the rules on state aid so that national governments can take action to save industries and businesses
- The European Central Bank has provided a €750 billion stimulus package for the Eurozone
- The European Investment Bank is mobilising billions of euros in funding for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
On 9th April, the Eurogroup – the Finance Ministers of the Eurozone countries – agreed a package of measures for a comprehensive economic response to the crisis. These included flexibility in the use of EU funds; emergency grants to reinforce healthcare systems; strengthening the European Investment Bank to support businesses, particularly SMEs; a credit line for Eurozone countries affected by the shock of the pandemic; support for the SURE initiative as proposed by the Commission; and a roadmap and a fund for the recovery. This package will now go to EU leaders for agreement.
What more could the EU do?
Health is primarily a responsibility for member states and not the EU institutions.
There is now an awareness that this should change and that the EU must respond quicker and more cohesively to crises and health emergencies.
Over the medium to long term, we should consider the EU’s crisis response and develop the EU’s role in healthcare. We need, for example, to give the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) a greater role, and we need a rapid alert system as we have when the food supply chain is contaminated. That latter system was developed after the BSE crisis many years ago – it is very effective.
After that particular crisis, there was a committee of enquiry in the European Parliament and there will likely be a similar response to this crisis. This committee of enquiry would be led by the Environment, Food Safety and Public Health Committee, of which I am a member.