European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen believes the “real Europe is standing up” to the coronavirus crisis now. In a written interview with EURACTIV’s media partner Efe, she spoke about a broad range of issues, from the challenges facing the Eurogroup earlier this month to the expectations for the summit of European leaders this week.
The key thing, the German politician said, is to realise that “business as usual is no more. We will need to ‘bounce forward’ and not ‘bounce back’. And we will need to build a resilient, green and digital Europe. At the heart of this will be our growth strategy, the European Green Deal, and the twin transition and opportunity of digitalisation and decarbonisation”.
Are you afraid of the rise in Euroscepticism in countries like Spain, traditionally one of the most pro-European countries in the EU?
In a crisis like this, the truth matters more than ever. So we should be honest about the situation we are in. And the truth is that when confronted with an invisible, powerful virus which knows no borders, populism and nationalism provide no answers.
Truth also matters when it comes to the economic fallout the whole world is grappling with. Europe has done more in the first four weeks of the crisis than it did in the first four years of the last one. We have taken a series of unprecedented decisions, from state aid to the Stability and Growth Pact and much more besides. This has enabled a collective response worth more than 3 trillion euros – the most emphatic in the world.
This common effort is a huge protective shield that even the strongest country in the world could not put up alone. What makes me even more confident is that the real Europe is standing up now. The one that is there for each other when it is needed the most. We’ve seen ventilators from Germany and medical supplies from Lithuania help to save lives in Spain.
We have seen patients from Italy and France treated in hospitals in Luxembourg, Czechia and elsewhere. There are countless more examples which make Europe the epicentre of solidarity right now. This does not just happen by accident – it happens because we are part of the same Union and we are stronger together. That’s the truth and we must never be afraid to say it.
The leaders have entrusted you and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to develop a recovery plan after the pandemic. What main action lines should that plan have?
As you know, our full focus is on protecting lives and livelihoods. I welcome the Eurogroup’s endorsement of the Commission proposals, in particular the creation of SURE which will help keep people in jobs and ensure we can make the full and quick use of Cohesion Funds. This will make a big difference but we know that more will be needed. This is why the Eurogroup also concluded that the next EU Budget will play a central role in the economic recovery.
This is natural: it is an instrument that is trusted by all, already in place and can deliver quickly. It can help target investment to our common objectives and is a tool for cohesion, convergence and investment. We will also have to realise that business as usual is no more. We will need to “bounce forward” not “bounce back”.
And we will need to build a resilient, green and digital Europe. At the heart of this will be our growth strategy, the European Green Deal, and the twin transition and opportunity of digitalisation and decarbonisation.
Spain proposes a “Marshall Plan” to reconstruct Europe and you have said that the pillar of this plan should be the next European budget 2021-2027. Do you really think it will be possible to finance this plan?
It’s true, Europe needs a Marshall Plan for its recovery and it needs to be put in place as soon as possible. For all the reasons I just mentioned, the EU budget must be right at the heart of this.
And because this crisis is different from any other, so must our next seven-year budget be different from what we know. We will need to frontload it so we can power investment in those crucial first years of recovery. We will need innovative solutions and bigger headroom to unlock that huge public and private investment needed to help Europe make that leap forward together.
What volume should have the MFF (multiannual financial framework) to constitute an authentic recovery plan?
We will put forward our proposals for the MFF soon and we are not yet talking specific numbers. We will have an opportunity to discuss some key principles with Leaders at next week’s European Council. Speed will be of the essence.
Do you think the pandemic will act as an incentive to make countries most unwilling to have a big budget ready to contribute further?
When you are in a Union together, a euro invested in one country is an investment for all. It is in the interest of all member states to successfully jumpstart our economies after this crisis.
We all know that it will require a huge amount of investment to rebuild the Single Market, on which we all draw prosperity and opportunity. A strong Single Market depends on cohesion. You need both to ensure prosperity across the whole EU – from north to south, from east to west. And we need this now more than ever before. My feeling is that this is well understood by all countries.
Are you afraid that this crisis will increase inequality in Europe again?
This is a crucial point. While the crisis was symmetric, the recovery will not be. We know that for some regions and for people, it will be much harder and take much more time to recover than for others. That is particularly true for the most vulnerable groups in our society and the hardest-hit regions in our Union.
We need a just recovery for all and this is why cohesion and convergence must be our watchwords.
Do you think that containment measures could present a risk in some countries to involve unjustified restrictions on freedoms? Hungary’s action has been criticised by the European Parliament. What do you think as a representative of the European Commission?
The majority of countries in the EU and right around the world have taken emergency measures. This reflects the extraordinary times we are living in.
But the measures must be proportionate, limited in time and subject to democratic accountability. We are monitoring the situation related to these emergency measures in all member states, and we are looking particularly closely at those in Hungary.
Wherever there is a need, we will not hesitate to take action. Our values and our democracy will never be put into lockdown.
Are you concerned that the first reaction of some countries to the pandemic was to put up barriers and obstacles to the free flow of goods and citizens in the EU?
The truth is that no one was really ready for this. And it is the most basic instinct to want to first protect ourselves and those closest to us. This reflex cost us dearly but from day one the Commission worked around the clock to unblock and coordinate the situation as best possible. It did not take very long for people to realise that this was the way to go.
Since then, Europe has become the beating heart of solidarity and we all know that we have to protect each other in order to protect ourselves in this crisis.
More coordination will be needed to manage the exit of the crisis than there was at the entry of it. This is why, along with President Michel, we put forward a European roadmap to lifting containment measures.
What lessons could the EU learn from this crisis, for example on the bloc’s dependency to third countries for medical supplies?
Certainly, the reserves in most countries proved to be too small in the face of this pandemic. This shows that we will have to think differently about our health systems in the future. We will have to look very closely at our supply chains, for example for protective equipment and medicines.
We will have to improve European crisis preparedness more generally and not be dependent on a single producer outside the EU for vital products. We know that a virus can hit us at any time so there is a permanent need for European reserves for critical medical products.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]