Avanti, von der Leyen!

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

European Parliament Brexit Negotiator Guy Verhofstadt gives a speech during a plenary session on BREXIT vote of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 29 January 2020. [Olivier Hoslet/EPA/EFE]

Playtime is over, so Ursula von der Leyen and her Commissioners better take out the big guns and follow in the footsteps of the Delors Commission, writes Guy Verhofstadt.

Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian politician who was the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe from 2009 to 2019, and has been a Member of the European Parliament from Belgium since 2009.

When Jacques Delors said last week that “the germ is back”, he was not referring to the actual coronavirus but the germ of narrow national self-interest among European leaders.

Dutch Minister of finance Wopke Hoekstra even dared to suggest that solidarity among member states is impossible because of “moral hazard”.

While, just as with the migration crisis that hit certain countries harder than others because of their position on the map of Europe, this Corona crisis is one of “bad luck”. Countries who were hit first simply had less time to prepare for the storm than others. There is no moral superiority or predestination to be found in this crisis.

So how do we root out the germ of self-interest that blocks Europe today ? The answer is simple: with the supranational solidarity embodies in the European Commission. Playtime is over, so Ursula von der Leyen and her Commissioners better take out the big guns and follow in the footsteps of the Delors Commission.

My call to her is: please, don’t duplicate the indecisiveness of the Council, don’t limit yourself to weak coordination. Leave behind the superficial strategy of silly ‘infographics’ showing that member states are doing just that tiny bit more than China.

If the European Commission is serious about this, it should launch a huge communication and information offensive countering the misinformation by nationalists and populists from inside and outside the Union, Kremlin and Beijing alike.

But more than communication, Europe needs real action now. A comprehensive three-way-strategy on a continental scale to overcome this crisis. First of all, on the sanitary level.

By putting in place a European response mechanism that is activated every time a serious health crisis emerges. Issuing clear mandatory guidelines on how to act: for people on a personal and family level and for national governments on which business to close temporarily.

At the heart of such a mechanism should be a single European Health Agency that is properly funded and has the mandate to act.

An agency that does more than just “coordinating” national efforts, but is able to take all emergency measures to keep Europeans safe, including the pooling of medicines and hospital equipment and the temporary closing (partially or complete) of our borders.

Secondly, the European Commission needs to launch a massive trillion “Stability and Recovery Package” to support our national economies, especially their citizens and their companies.

A package that must contain a wide range of tools going from special credit for investment over bridge loans for SME’s to a reinsurance unemployment scheme.

A massive package that will be financed by the launch of a European Recovery Bond as part of a renewed and enlarged European budget.

The ECB already made the right move by proposing a “Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program” (PEPP) of 750 billion euro and the announcement that there will be “no limits”.

But we should not let the ECB fight this by itself. Let’s not make the same mistake as in 2008 by acting reluctant, slow and insufficient. “Too little, too late”.

Making the economic crisis in Europe much longer and much deeper than necessary. In 2008, we saved the banks from bankruptcy, it would be an inconceivable perversity if we would not do the same for the real economy and real people who are losing their jobs as we speak.

If this Corona crisis grows into a new sovereign debt crisis, we cannot say we did not see it coming. However, what we did not see coming, but what will perhaps require the biggest pushback is the loss of democratic values and personal freedoms during this crisis.

These are golden days for law enforcement and wannabe dictators. Viktor Orbàn, to give only one example, has been eroding the rule of law and democracy for years. Now, under the pretext of the COVID19 pandemic, he launched an additional authoritarian power grab this week, closing the Parliament and ushering in unlimited rule by decree.

Up until now, the EU has issued only lukewarm challenges to him. Also here, it is time for the von der Leyen Commission to get real and to act.

It’s clear that Europe’s intergovernmental patchwork does not work in times of crises. Not during the financial crisis of 2008, not during the sovereign debt crisis of 2012, not during the migration crisis of 2015 and – unsurprisingly – not today during the Corona crisis.

Therefore it’s time that the Commission adopts a much more pro-active approach than today.

The Commission must take on more responsibility and more power, because in the end that is needed: a fundamental shift away from loose coordination in the Council – permanently weakened by the germ of national self-interest – towards real and decisive action trough the European Commission, a Commission accountable to both: the member states and the European citizens.

This is yet another crisis for Europe due to the inept and inefficient response from its member states. If we do not drastically change our political architecture, this might very well be its last crisis, the beginning of the end of the European project.

So, Mrs von der Leyen, it’s time for radical change, time for a fundamental shift, away from those who are unable to solve crisis after crisis after crisis, to those who are capable and willing to do so in the interest of all European citizens.

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