In times of crisis, the EU tends to get a kicking, and the coronavirus pandemic has offered a prime opportunity for Brussels-bashers to dust down their gloves. In this case, it is understandable but largely undeserved.
The European Commission has found itself in an almost impossible position. Promise too much and it sets itself up to fail. Pledge too little and it looks irrelevant. Once again, EU leaders look like they are searching for a role.
That was underscored when Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel presented the EU executive’s ‘roadmap’ on how to exit from the crisis on Wednesday (15 April).
Most of the big decisions related to the lockdown measures are solely in the hands of national governments. The EU executive wants countries to be required to notify each other and the Commission itself “in due time” before lockdown measures are relaxed.
The EU has limited powers in healthcare policy and it is fanciful to believe that national governments are going to give up their competences over the way they organise national health systems.
Similarly, the response to the economic damage caused by the lockdown is largely down to national treasuries.
The row over whether jointly issued eurobonds should be introduced exposes one of the eurozone’s most fundamental flaws, but the solution, or not, lies in the hands of national ministers.
That means that the Commission should not over-hype the importance of the policy measures it can push through. To take one example, the SURE support scheme for workers facing lost income from lockdown is useful, but not a silver bullet. It can complement but will not replace national support schemes.
Yet co-ordination is a valuable role, and one of the bloc’s big successes over the past month has been in joint procurement. Since mid-March, four joint public procurements have brought together 25 member states to tackle shortages in supplies of urgent medical equipment, including ventilators, laboratory equipment and personal protective equipment.
Joint EU procurement is not a panacea. It is member states themselves who purchase the goods and sign the contracts with the bidders, while the Commission co-ordinates the tender process. Nor does it have to replace national plans. Most governments across the bloc have launched their own national procurement plans.
But the programme – and the €1.5 billion worth of kit bought through it – has helped save lives.
In contrast, the UK government is rightly being hammered over shortages of PPE and ventilators in its hospitals, and the fact that it decided not to opt-in to the joint procurement scheme before finding that, with most of the world scrambling to buy the same thing, ordering the equipment it needs is a slow and uneven process.
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Look out for…
European Parliament video session discusses EU COVID-19 pandemic response.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Sam Morgan]