After the pandemic: How to use Conference on Future of Europe to rethink society

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

Nicolae Ştefănuţă. [European Parliament]

From financial problems to migration and Brexit, the European Union has faced multiple challenges so far. Nowadays, Europe is being hard-hit by another “black swan” – the COVID-19 pandemic. Could this one be even more destructive? How can the EU learn from its mistakes in order to better face future unpredictable crises, asks Nicolae Ştefănuţă.

Nicolae Ştefănuţă is an MEP for the Save Romania Union (Renew). He is a vice-chair for EU-US relations and sits on the Environment, Budget and Foreign Affairs Committee. 

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to the “Italian crisis”, the “German crisis” or the “Belgian crisis”. It led to 27 different crises in Europe, when, in fact, we were – and we still are – facing only 1 major challenge – the COVID-19 pandemic in the European Union.

All these different crises led to different approaches: some countries imposed export bans on critical medical aid while others imposed border controls. 

The initial lack of coordinated response and solidarity among EU member states was soon to be blamed. And while China and Russia started sending medical aid to the most affected European countries, the EU realised it’s time to go from a state-first response to a Union-based response.

Here is the first thing EU must keep in mind: no matter the crisis – environmental, economic, health, – European action has to be immediate, inclusive, collective, measurable, effective and relatable.

The European coordinated answer to major challenges can never be delayed. As we have noticed, European action and solidarity are being questioned especially in times of crisis, when societies, economies and states are more dependent on each other than ever.

And it’s in time of crisis we realize we are more Europeans than we are Romanians, Spanish or Danish. In solidarity with the Italians, we have seen the colors green, white and red being illuminated on the streets of Vilnius, on the presidential palace on Bucharest, on the Greek parliament building and mostly all over Europe.

The crisis in Bergamo felt just as tragic as the one in Brașov, Romania, or in Regensburg, Germany. Together with the Italians, we have clapped from our balconies giving thanks to all the doctors and nurses out there – our frontline heroes.

Solidarity among civil societies across Europe is vital. However, it is not enough. Until policymakers start thinking about themselves as equally European as Dutch, German or Hungarian, the EU will not move forward.

In this context, a transnational list could serve this dream: creating a Europe-wide constituency that will allow citizens to vote for common candidates, rather than for national ones.

The EU benefits from all the necessary ways to show its solidarity. And it did – by joint procurement of medical equipment, by creating a new strategic stockpile and by measures taken to secure the free movement of goods at the borders.

Although the European Commission did take serious measures to help the European economies during this crisis, member states still remained divided over how to better overcome the future recession.

Thursday night, however, Eurogroup finance ministers agreed on a financial package worth half a trillion euros. Communication and compromise are, therefore, possible.  

The nationalist-populist rhetoric is unstoppable. In times of crisis, it can be fueled even faster. When Italians felt they have been left alone in the early phase of the pandemic, trust in the European project diminished. In the same time, confidence in Russia and China increased.

The current cross-border medical crisis has shown that the “game of who has the power” between the Union and the member states, rendered both the Union and the member states, powerless, leading to the question: Is the “game of who has the power” in the interest of the European citizens?

The decades-long reluctance of the member states in conferring the European Union further competences on the health policy needs to end now and the road needs to be paved towards a fully integrated European Health Union. 

The European Commission has limited ability to coordinate what member states do and ECDC (European Centre for Disease Control) has more visibility than actual legal power or capabilities to intervene.

The chaos of seeing how each member state scramble to find the necessary medical supplies has made the European citizens wonder about the purpose of the Union. The world after the COVID-19 pandemic will be different and the European healthcare needs to match that reality. 

The mechanism for fixing the European society has already been instituted. It is the Conference on the Future of Europe. What the EU needs to do is to transform this from a simple debate to something more meaningful, more fundamental and more radical.

Today we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomorrow we may face an even bigger challenge. Let’s think about this crisis as a chance for the EU to lead the world to a better future, for all, together. To lead the way to a stronger, more prosperous Union. The way to a crucial international actor.

Will the EU take it up? If not, it may lose its most valuable fortune: the heart of its citizens. 

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