Europe could have been better prepared to face the COVID-19 pandemic if China and the World Health Organisation had offered “better and more reliable information earlier”, the EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
Thierry Breton spoke to EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.
In Spain, the country I know best, there was a scarcity of protective material like masks at the beginning of the pandemic. From your perspective, how did Spain manage the coronavirus crisis?
I don’t want to comment on specific countries. But everyone did the best they could. It is true that, in the beginning, we saw few countries closing their borders [for goods]. It was not a good reaction. They reopened quickly. I don’t want to blame anybody, because nobody was prepared for this situation. In a few weeks, we organised ourselves. When the crisis started there were 10 factories in the EU producing masks, now there are 500 factories because they were able to transform some of their production line. If we had better and more reliable information earlier, probably we will have been able to prepare ourselves better. But we were lacking reliable information. And it’s true that everyone has been taken by surprise.
When you say ‘better and more reliable information earlier’, are you referring to information provided by China?
Yes, and maybe also information provided by the WHO. I don’t blame anybody. But when you have information, you are better prepared. It’s obvious.
The recovery fund announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen should be up and running on 1 January. What will happen if the national parliaments don’t ratify the package by then?
Firstly, I must say that this is probably one of the most important moments for the construction of Europe. For the first time, if the plan is adopted, the Commission would issue debt in the markets at an unprecedented scale, to offer €500 billions of grants and €250 of billions in loans.
Secondly, it’s a good moment to discuss in the next few years giving new own resources to the Commission. For example, by expanding the Emissions Trading System, by introducing a carbon adjustment mechanism, or a digital tax. The Commission will issue the debt, and it will reimburse it, with very long maturities, up to 30 years, with own resources. So it will be unfair to say that some member states will pay for others.
So is it possible to adopt the package by then?
The approval of the 27 national parliaments could be done quickly if we have the support of the European Council and the European Parliament.
Tourism is another hard-hit industry. A dozen member states requested a specific recovery fund for the sector. Is there anything specific in the new recovery plan for them?
Every member state where tourism is relevant should prepare a specific plan for the sector with three objectives. Firstly, to help the whole industry, including hotels, bars, etc…to overcome this situation. The recovery fund could be part of the solution for member states. Secondly, the plans should ensure that we can reopen safely. The Commission offered a ‘toolbox’ to member states, to harmonise some protocols. Thirdly, we should save the season. We know it will be difficult. But while respecting the conditions of health authorities, we can reopen again. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship in the industry, so hopefully, we can start reopening in the next few weeks.
Some countries are recommending to their citizens to do domestic tourism this summer. Some others are in talks to agree on ‘safe bubbles’. What would be your recommendation?
Our recommendation is to fully respect the epidemiological situation per zones. For example, in France, you have a red zone and a green zone. It’s better more and more to act on the basis of zones than borders. This is what we recommend.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]