Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

Europe's masked corona ball

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out a 'run for your life' instinct in Europe. European institutions have simply been sidelined. Should we be surprised?
EPA-EFE//OLIVIER HOSLET
The EU Commissioner in charge of Crisis Management, Janez Lenarcic, and the European Commissioner in charge of Health, Stella Kyriakides, attend a debate on the novel coronavirus Covid-19 during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels.

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Response from the Cabinet of Commissioner Lenarčič:
At the end of January, as the outbreak intensified in Wuhan coronavirus epicentre, President von der Leyen triggered Commission’s internal rapid alert system and asked Commissioner Lenarčič to initiate strengthened coordination among the services of the Commission. In his capacity of the European Emergency Response Coordinator, Commissioner was ensuring the overall coordination of all Commission’s services and the EEAS. These were fully engaged in monitoring and supporting efforts to respond to all facets of this epidemic. At the first coronavirus related press conference by the Commission on 29 January, hosted by Commissiner Kyriakides and Commissioner Lenarčič, the latter warned that things will get worse before they will get better, while stressing that in this respect public health is the number one consideration of the Commission. In view of the events, on 10 February he then continued and publicly called upon Member States to step-up preparedness and contingency measures against coronavirus outbreak. Similarly, at the first extraordinary EU Council of health ministers, also attended by commissioners for health and crisis management, he warned the Member States that the situation requires us to act as a Union, while pointing out that any measures taken are much more effective if they are taken in a coordinated, aligned manner.
Due to the unprecedented aggravating impact of this novel virus on Europe and the rest of the world, this soon required full attention of several Commissioners in line with their mandates. In this respect, at the beginning of March the Commission announced its Corona Response Team comprised of five Commissioners, next to Commissioner Lenarčič and Kyriakides also Commissioners Paolo Gentiloni, Adina Vălean and Ylva Johansson. Very soon after, due to the extremely aggressive nature of this novel coronavirus the-whole-of-Commission approach was necessary under the daily steering of President von der Leyen.
It needs to be explained that the Commission does not and cannot “order medical supplies”. On 19 March, the Commission decided to form an EU-level capacity of medical equipment with the aim that it can be shared with those who need it most. But even here, this additional capacity must be procured and hosted by Member States. Moreover, from the very outset the Commission firstly needed to acquire the agreement of all member States to set up such capacity, which was given on 17 March. In short, the Commission pays for this additional medical capacity. This is due to the Lisbon Treaty, which specifies that health and civil protection are competences of Member States, hence the Commission can only play a supportive role.
 


Ever heard of Janez Lenarcic before? Me neither. Until a few months ago, the ambitious 52-year-old was the head of the Slovene permanent representation in Brussels. He rose through the ranks of UN in the 1990s and now he is Europe’s ‘Crisis Supremo’.
A crisis normally means it’s a time to hurry up. But it was only on March 19 that Crisis Commissioner Lenarcic announced a search “without delay” for masks, intensive care equipment, respirators, etc for an EU-wide effort against the coronavirus outbreak.
Without delay? The first two Chinese tourists tested positive in Rome in late January. On February 23, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control near Stockholm declared that COVID-19 was “dynamically evolving”.
But the Disease Control experts assessed the danger to Europe and the UK as “low to moderate.” A few days later, Italy became the worst-hit country in the world outside Asia, with over 8,000 fatalities and counting.
Everyone makes mistakes. Brussels maintained a sort of dignified calm, with no panic buying of medical supplies, let alone a sense of urgency to distribute to, for instance, Italy. Non-experts were by then busy stripping shelves of toilet paper, alcohol wipes, masks, spaghetti, and peanut butter.
The Panic Supremo is now leading a delay-free institutional panic-shop, all of which seems a bit late.
Clear-minded people would assess the EU’s current crisis management at somewhere between mediocre and non-existent. It is cruel to look back to Commissioner Lenarcic telling the European Parliament last November before the coronavirus epidemic made itself known, how he saw his new job as Europe ‘Crisis Supremo’.
“It is a noble mission, it is a way to show the best face of Europe around the world,” he told MEPs only five short months ago. “Solidarity is something that people don’t think about until the moment they need it. And then they remember it forever.”
Unfortunately for the new Commissioner, that is painfully true.
Healthcare still remains a national competency, but crisis prevention began to slide into its obvious institutional place back in 2017 when RescEU, a system that was meant to tackle major catastrophes, was created.
“RescEU strengthens European preparedness before disasters strike”, its website proudly proclaims. It was supposed to provide help to all of the EU’s 27 members when one of them proves incapable of dealing with a catastrophe on its. Much like Italy, for example, which is facing the pandemic without any measurable support from Brussels.
But given the long radio-silence from Brussels, or indeed from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and no coordination from RescEU, which is busy everywhere else except in Western Europe, each EU member has done whatever seemed sensible at that moment. This has led to complete chaos over such critical matters as the sale of masks when that seemed to be in their own national interest.
In the early days of the pandemic, some European countries stopped flights from China and other Asian countries, others checked people arriving for fever. Italy was the first to ban flights from China altogether. This led inevitably to Chinese textile workers flying into Europe via Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland, then boarding flights to Italian airports.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel give a joint press conference after a video conference on the EU’s actions regarding the coronavirus outbreak. EPA-EFE//STEPHANIE LECOCQ

As the infections spread, some EU members introduced controls at the borders, which were supposed to be reported to the Commission but rarely were. When Austria introduced inspections at their border with Italy, the Italian government was furious.
Berlin acted according to the old save who you can principle. Like France, Germany stopped all exports of medical equipment, meaning that trucks loaded with masks and protective clothing that had already been paid for by the Austrian health authorities were blocked at the border for weeks.
Hungary held back Romanians and Bulgarians who wanted to cross Hungary’s borders on their way home. This caused 30km–long traffic jams on key motorways. After mass protests, the Hungarian border guards allowed foreign nationals through, but only for a few hours and only at night.
I have been able to discover no European Commission guidelines at all about any of this. What was the Panic Plenipotentiary doing or saying during all of this? He did not even get credit for arranging a truce between Germany and France over their shameful quarrel over the export of face masks. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton took credit for getting the two countries to approve the exports “after intense conversations.”
Meanwhile, in Italy where its health service is close to collapse, Rome appealed to other European countries for vital medical supplies. Guess how well that went – supplies only got through last week from China, the US and Russia. Austria transported tons of medical supplies from China to Vienna and onwards to Italy. Even tiny and impoverished Cuba sent medical staff to Italy.
Worried about Europe’s differing economies, and perhaps stunned by “her Europe’s” pathetic performance, President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new aid scheme with a €37 billion initiative to sustain small businesses and the health sector. Not to be left out, Christine Lagarde, head of the European Central Bank, announced a €750 billion scheme.
Von der Leyen even broke the Maastricht taboo, announcing the suspension of strict rules for national budgets, and allowing multi-billion national aid programmes to be introduced and all “non–essential travel to the EU” by non-European passport holders was to be barred indefinitely, and so on.
No one was listening, however. Each European country preferred to act alone, even when bigger nations like Germany, Italy, France, and Spain seemed to be losing the battle against COVID-19. On March 15, a group of academics, politicians, professionals, and others pleaded with the EU institutions to urgently address the current coronavirus pandemic and at the European level.
“We, as European citizens, are worried and scared by this threat; and even more by the cacophony, selfishness, and self-destructive short-sightedness of the different, uncoordinated national responses,” they wrote, attacking “the lack of foresight of our national leaders, who pretend not to know that our interdependence requires a single European answer with strict containment measures for the pandemic, and an EU-wide plan to re-start the European economy afterwards,” the group wrote
I have no idea whether such concocted appeals have any effect. Probably not. They had none worth mentioning in the UK over Brexit.
Inspired by the situation, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced a plan to introduce emergency rule that excludes Hungary’s parliament, which may well be dissolved in the coming days as Orban’s party enjoys a two-thirds majority.
In his endless battle to suppress independent media, Orban also called for journalists publishing “fake news” to be jailed for up to five years.
For all the fine-sounding utopian calls for solidarity and for reinvigorating structures like the Early Warning and Response System that was set up in 1998, what is missing is a serious European effort. For now, however, the possibility of elementary cooperation remains open.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s boss, Andrea Ammon, says that the EU’s Early Warning and Response System has an “incident management module” where measures could be listed. Could, should, would… When, if not now?
A good start might be keeping each other informed, if not directly coordinating European efforts.
At their March 6 emergency meeting, EU health ministers were still asking to be informed about what other countries were planning to do, as well as how, when and why. “It’s a pity to find out about each others’ policies through newspapers and websites,” Greek Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias complained.
Something the Panic Supremo might arrange if he can make the time.

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