Strengthening EU cohesion with European responses to corona crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Spanish policemen control in the border crossing between Spain and France at Le Perthus, France, on 17 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO]

The number of people infected with the coronavirus is increasing daily across Europe. The top political priority must be to take targeted measures to slow down infections, in order to protect high-risk groups and avoid overburdening health systems, write Anna Cavazzini and Petra de Sutter.

Anna Cavazzini and Petra de Sutter are MEPs for the Greens Group. Petra de Sutter is the chair of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection.

With solidarity between member states and a functioning internal market, we can guarantee that people are provided with the care they need, where it is most needed.

Europe will decide whether it stands together in solidarity. The European Union can now show its ability to better meet challenges as one, instead of when each acts alone.

The virus is not stopping at member states borders, nor do individual member states have the power to cope with this extraordinary European and global situation.

We must not reflexively relapse into a nation-state way of thinking and acting. We must remember existing common rules and solutions, develop them further, in line with the situation, and make use of the benefit of joint action.

The internal market is a key instrument to implement European solutions efficiently and show solidarity. While some member states have a strong position in the production of medical or pharmaceutical products, others rely on imports from their European neighbours.

The added value of the common market is that it ensures the supply of vital goods to people, and guarantees the independence of the EU, especially in times of crisis. It is precisely when European solidarity is called for that the fundamental freedoms of the internal market must not be undermined, but should be adapted to the situation.

Unfortunately, national measures in some member states do not at present follow the basic idea that the internal market and a common coordinated approach at European level bring added value for all.

When several countries restrict the export of life-saving medical goods such as respirators, protective clothing or gloves, European solidarity ends when it is most needed. If accession candidates such as Serbia are denied solidarity assistance from EU states, confidence in the European enlargement process is weakened.

The partial or total closure of borders in some member states does not contribute to effective control of the coronavirus either. Instead, tens of thousands of citizens from Baltic States have been stranded at the Polish-German border.

Temporary border controls in the Schengen area are legal for public health reasons, but unfortunately, all member states are now affected by the virus. In this respect, attempt to keep the virus “out” are not likely to succeed.

Green proposals for the European single market

  1.   A European strategy for coordinated production, stockpiling and distribution of medical equipment: Intra-European trade in medical goods must not be restricted. Instead, the focus must be on the targeted and coordinated promotion of production capacities on the European market, in order to guarantee mutual support in times of crisis. To this end, a Europe-wide database to record demand for medical goods in the various EU member states would be useful. We support the Commission’s initiative to provide an overview of stocks, production and imports and take action to improve the situation. We welcome the fact that European standards for the production of masks, gloves and other products were made freely available. Further incentives are needed to encourage companies to produce these goods. In line with the European Council conclusions of March 26, the EU should expand the joint procurement of medical products to combat the crisis and, with high standards and transparency, allow flexibility for rapid procurement procedures. Urgently needed medical goods, such as protective masks, respiratory equipment, tests etc. must be procured jointly and distributed in such a way that all EU member states are considered according to their emergency. In the long term, regulatory measures and incentives must ensure that essential medicines are produced in Europe.
  2.   Manage common capacities jointly so that everyone is well supplied: there are many positive examples of unbureaucratic help from European regions taking intensive care patients from neighbouring member states, for example, Saarland treating patients from neighbouring French regions, which health systems are under severe strain. These initiatives need support and European coordination. A coordinated reporting system for free beds and free ventilators would be useful at the European level, to ensure that free capacities can be used for the best. Lessons must be learned from the ad-hoc coordination of the corona crisis, in order to share capacities and resources for future crisis management and disaster relief in Europe.
  3.   Health checks yes, passport controls no – sensible rules for the free movement of goods: We welcome the European Commission’s clear commitment to the full functioning of the internal market. It is the most effective way to prevent shortages and maintain supply chains. Anyone who justifies border controls with public health measures should only carry out health checks. Blanket border closures and passport controls are not effective measures to contain the virus. The border police should not be the one carrying out health checks without training. In order to guarantee the smooth movement of goods, it is necessary to exchange best practices and train health personnel to prevent crowds and traffic jams at border crossings. ‘Green lanes’ for trucks are a good solution, and we welcome the Commission’s guidelines in this regard. Requesting additional documents, on the other hand, creates additional bureaucracy. People must be able to travel home from their place of work, especially when they are in transit through a third member state. There must be no turning people away at internal borders simply because they do not have the passport of a particular member state. Special protection is also needed for people who are currently more likely to be hindered in their important work: workers in logistics and transport who guarantee supplies on the internal market, and border commuters who, for example, are unable to go to work at the Saxon-Czech border.
  4.   Increasing production capacity to help internationally: increasing production capacity within the internal market not only ensures independence and adequate supply within the EU but also facilitates global solidarity. UN organisations are already sounding the alarm about the further spread of the virus, for example in Africa. Faced with a global challenge, such as containing the virus, the EU has an obligation to not close off but to provide assistance, for example by supplying medical supplies. The current EU export restrictions to third countries could have negative consequences: they could disrupt supply chains, offer incentives to other countries to restrict their exports as well, and harm the poorest countries.

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