Newsletter: What is the EU doing to tackle the coronavirus crisis?

EU flags fly at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Monday, May 9, 2011. The European Union celebrates Europe Day with speeches, editorials and events, and nary any sign of popular enthusiasm from Sweden down to Portugal, from Dublin to Athens. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

Dear ladies and gentlemen! Dear friends!

We are living through unprecedented times. The coronavirus is affecting the health of our loved ones and having a profound impact on the economy and our day-to-day professional and private lives. Our world faces daunting challenges which we will only overcome if we work together, help and show consideration for one another and accept responsibility. This applies throughout society. Like in a family, we need to take determined, coordinated action at all levels – national, regional, European, global. Only in this way can we support and complement one another and achieve the results we all want.

All the EU institutions and bodies are working flat out around the clock to tackle the coronavirus crisis. The purpose of this newsletter is to inform you in detail about this work. The European Commission is coordinating our joint efforts in daily discussions with EU ministers and the heads of state and government and has issued a series of legislative proposals, communications, guidelines and recommendations. The European Parliament has adopted decisions on a new EU Investment Initiative, the extension of the scope of the EU Solidarity Fund and the prevention of ‘ghost flights’. The Eurogroup is working on practical proposals for ways in which the European Stability Mechanism could now be used to support the euro countries. At the same time, the European Central Bank, the European System of Financial Supervision and the European Investment Bank are supporting our real economy.

The measures agreed focus on research, the economy, transport and mobility. But they cover other spheres as well: the EU is also doing its utmost in the areas of health, employment and social policy, which are primarily Member State competences. The EU Institutions have taken on a coordinating and supporting role, because most national decisions only work as part of a European approach. And it is doing whatever is needed to help us save lives together, contain the spread of the virus, make medical supplies available, quickly develop vaccines and treatments, keep the internal market functioning properly and support our economy, small and medium-sized enterprises, individual businesses and supply chains. 

But the coronavirus crisis is also highlighting the need to develop the EU further, to make it more effective, more efficient, in a word just better. At times of crisis, some Member States tend to abandon a clear-sighted European approach in favour of blinkered national attitudes. Because we have too little Europe, a patchwork of national provisions is emerging in the health sector. Borders have been unilaterally closed, supply chains broken, aid held back. There are shortfalls in the areas of research and the manufacturing of medical equipment. And the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has had the gall to exploit the coronavirus crisis as a pretext for undermining our liberal parliamentary democracy. 

Yes, we are coming up against boundaries of all kinds. But for just that reason it is on us to step up our cooperation. Because the EU is all of us, and global challenges cannot be addressed if countries put up walls, close borders and choose to go at it alone.  Challenges call for solidarity! Robert Schuman knew this as long ago as 1950: ‘Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.’ Every one of us can, and indeed must, do our bit and learn lessons for the future. If we do, then we will emerge from the crisis stronger.

Othmar Karas

What practical measures has the EU taken so far?

Research, medical supplies and equipment: what is the EU doing to defeat the coronavirus?

Solidarity with China: More than 56 tonnes of protective equipment has been made available to China by the Member States, including Austria. China has supplied the EU with more than 2 million protective masks and 50 000 testing kits. (more details)

Joint procurement: Very quickly, the EU was able to obtain for the Member States on the world market emergency medical equipment (protective masks, testing kits, ventilators) worth EUR 50 million. This was made possible by the brand new EU Civil Protection Mechanism, ‘rescEU’. By pooling its forces, the EU secures better terms. (more details) On 27 March 2020, the Commission proposed an increase in the rescEU reserve to EUR 80 million. (more details) In a further step, the budget for rescEU was increased by a further 300 million euros for the joint procurement of medically necessary equipment at the beginning of April. (more details)

EU-Emergency Support Instrument: With an additional 2.7 bn. Euro, the Emergency Support Instrument will allow the EU to provide a coordinated EU response throughout the different stages of the crisis. The concrete action will depend on the needs of the EU countries. However, the focus is on targeted support for the most severely affected areas and the cross-border transport of severely ill patients to hospitals with free capacities. As well as boosting the rapid development of medication and test procedures. Other actions will also be possible, according to the evolving needs of Member States, hospitals, doctors and patients. (more details)

Joint research: The EU is supporting 22 targeted research projects on vaccines, diagnostic techniques and treatments. In partnership with the European Investment Bank, more than EUR 5 billion is being invested. (more details here and here)

The EU Commission has presented a 10. point action plan to quickly develop drugs and a vaccine in the fight against COVID-19. Every effort is being made with Member States to support research and innovation, coordinate efforts and create synergies within the  European Research Area. 

The 10. priority actions include:

  1. Coordination of R&I funding against the Coronavirus
  2. Extending and supporting large EU wide clinical trials for clinical management of Coronavirus patients
  3. New funding for innovative and rapid health-related approaches to respond to coronavirus and deliver quick results relevant to society and a higher level of preparedness of health systems
  4. Increasing support to innovative companies
  5. Creating opportunities for other funding sources to contribute to R&I actions on Coronavirus
  6. Establishing a one-stop shop for Coronavirus R&I funding
  7. Establishing an ad-hoc High-Level R&I Task Force on the Coronavirus
  8. Access to Research Infrastructures
  9. Research data sharing platform
  10. Pan-EU Hackathon to mobilise European innovators and civil society (24-26. April 2020)

(for more information please click here)

Stepping up manufacturing: The Commission is providing technical support for firms at all stages in the production chain in order to step up manufacturing of medical equipment in accordance with EU standards. (more details)

Combating fake news and propaganda: The EU Rapid Alert System on Disinformation works with the Member States and firms to identify, rectify and rebut fake news concerning the coronavirus. (more details)

On May 4, 2020, the European Commission will host an international donor conference online to address immediate funding gaps in the fight against COVID-19. States and organizations around the world are called to accelerate work on diagnosis, treatment and vaccines through financial participation. In the fight against the pandemic, there can only be common solutions.

From 24th to 26th of April the European Commission, led by the European Innovation Council and in close collaboration with the EU member states, will host a pan-European hackathon to connect civil society, innovators, partners and investors across Europe in order to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus-related challenges. Sign up here:

The Commission has mobilized a further EUR 122 million from its Horizon 2020 research and innovation program for urgently needed research into the corona virus. The new call for expressions of interest is a further contribution to the Commission’s commitment to mobilize EUR 1.4 billion for the global corona response initiative following the official launch by President Ursula von der Leyen on May 4, 2020. (more details)

The economy: What is the EU doing to cushion the socioeconomic impact?

Joint economic assistance: This far in the euro area alone, around EUR 3 400 billion in economic assistance (source) has been made available to support health systems, SMEs, individual firms and labour markets. The money is being provided by the EU and the national governments. The measures include:

  • EU Corona Response Investment Initiative (more details here and here)
  • Increased budget for the EU Solidarity Fund (more details here and here)
  • European Investment Bank support package (more details)

On 9 April 2020, the EU ministers of finance agreed on the establishment of a pan-European guarantee fund of EUR 25 billion to mobilise EUR 200 billion of financing support for SMEs and Mid-caps throughout the EU. (more details)

On 2 April 2020 the Commission proposed the establishment of a European instrument for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in emergency (SURE). EUR 100 billion shall be mobilised to help Member States protect jobs and thus employees and self-employed against the risk of unemployment and loss of income. (more details) On 9 April 2020, the EU ministers of finance agreed on the implementation of the “SURE” instrument. (more details)

Provision of assistance through the European Stability Mechanism: On 9 April 2020, the EU ministers of finance agreed to establish a new ESM credit line to support states with up to 2% of the respective Member’s GDP, which for Austria equals around EUR 8 billion. (more details)

More flexible debt rules: In response to the exceptional budgetary impact of the crisis, for the first time the EU has activated the ‘escape clause’ in the Stability and Growth Pact introduced following the last financial crisis. (more details)

Scope for granting State aid: As it did in response to the last financial crisis, the EU has granted temporary additional scope under the common rules on state aid. The aim is to offer the EU Member States maximum room for manoeuvre. They can provide individual firms with up to EUR 1 million in support. (more details)

On 8 April 2020 the Commission adopted a communication to allow stronger cooperation among businesses during the coronavirus outbreak within the antitrust rules, especially for critical hospital medicines. (more details)

On 9 April 2020, the Commission has adopted a statement consulting Member States on a proposal to further expand the scope for granting State aid. (more details)

Monetary policy measures: The European Central Bank is supporting the public, firms, banks and governments by offering favourable financing conditions as part of a new short-term asset purchase programme. This year the ECB will inject at least EUR 1 100 billion into the economy to ward off a looming recession. (more details)

Strengthening lending and liquidity: The European Banking Authority (EBA) and Single Supervisory Mechanism have eased the Pillar 2 capital requirements for credit institutions and postponed the bank stress test to 2021. (more details here and here)

Supporting the Western Balkans and Eastern Partners: The EU is mobilising a package of over EUR 410 million in reallocated bilateral financial assistance to support the Western Balkans and for the Eastern Partnership up to EUR 840 million during the coronavirus emergency. This includes funding for pressing medical equipment and protection needs as well as short to medium term assistance to support the social and economic recovery of the regions. (more details here and here)

The Commission has adopted a proposal for a €3 billion macro-financial assistance (MFA) package to ten enlargement and neighbourhood partners to help them to limit the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Republic of Albania (€180 million),Bosnia and Herzegovina (€250 million), Georgia (€150 million), the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (€200 million), Kosovo (€100 million), the Republic of Moldova (€100 million), Montenegro (€60 million), the Republic of North Macedonia (€160 million), the Republic of Tunisia (€600 million) and Ukraine (€1.2 billion). (more information here

The following additional measures are currently being considered:

  • Issuing of ‘corona bonds’: Additional funding could be raised for the Member States most in need of support through the issuing of a limited volume of joint bonds created for the specific purpose of tackling the coronavirus crisis. That would also go some way towards meeting my call for ‘future bonds’ to be introduced as a new method of funding the EU. (more details here and here)
  • European Unemployment Benefit Reinsurance Scheme: In order to provide effective support for national measures such as short-time working arrangements, the Commission is thinking of putting forward its legislative proposal on the scheme earlier than in autumn 2020, as originally planned. (more details). 

Mobility: What is the EU doing to safeguard the proper functioning of the internal market?

Protecting the EU’s external borders: The EU has imposed restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU, initially for a period of 30 days. (more details) Restrictions on non-essential travel to the EU have been prolonged until the 15. May 2020. (more details)

Repatriating EU citizens: This far more than 500 000 EU citizens have been repatriated. 58.800 of it under the EU’s civil protection arrangements. These also included flights to Austria. Up to 75% of the costs are being met from the EU budget. (more details) On 27 March 2020, the Commission proposed that a further EUR 45 million be made available from the EU budget for this purpose. (more details).

Managing internal borders: In order to maintain a functioning internal market, the Commission has issued guidelines for border management measures to protect public health and guarantee the availability of goods and essential services. The guidelines also grant unrestricted border-crossing rights to the many care workers who commute from Hungary, Slovakia and Czechia, a measure which is vital to the health and care sector. (more details)

On 30 March 2020, the Commission has issued new practical guidelines to ensure that mobile workers within the EU, in particular those in critical occupations to fight the coronavirus pandemic, can reach their workplace. This includes but is not limited to those working in the health care and food sectors, and other essential services like childcare, elderly care, and critical staff for utilities. (more details)

Safeguarding the free movement of workers: the European Commission has asked Member States to ensure the free movement of systemically relevant workers. These include harvest workers, medical personnel and workers in the transport sector. (more details)        

Guaranteeing the transport of goods: The EU has decided to establish ‘green corridors` to ensure that vital goods can continue to circulate within the internal market. (more details)

Changes to air traffic arrangements: In order to prevent ‘ghost flights’, the European Parliament has decided that the ‘slot’ system at airports should be suspended. The Commission has also issued guidelines on entitlements to refunds and alternative flights. (more details)

Supplies of protective medical equipment: In response to the shortages in Europe, the Commission has made exports of medical goods to non-EU countries subject to prior authorisation. At the same time, it is coordinating shipments on the internal market. Austria is involved in this mechanism and has shipped 130 tonnes of equipment from China to Tirol and to Italy. (more details)

Guidelines on Critical Technology Protection: The Commission has issued guidelines on the protection of critical European assets and technologies in the areas of health, medical research and biotechnology, whilst ensuring that the EU remains open to foreign investment. (more details)

Preventing network (internet) congestion: In order to guarantee the availability of the data capacity required during the crisis, the Commission has reached agreement with the platform operators on adjustments to the way streaming services are operated and used. Together with European regulators, the Commission is doing everything it can to protect the internet against cyber-attacks. (more details here and here)

European roadmap shows path towards common lifting of containment measures

On April 15, 2020, the EU Commission presented a step-by-step and coordinated EU strategic plan to lift measures against COVID-19. Timing between all member states is of crucial importance and only possible under three specific conditions: 

  1. Epidemiological criterion: according to which the spread of the virus has slowed over a longer period of time, e.g. fewer infected people and more hospital discharges.
  2. Sufficient capacities in the health care system: intensive care beds, necessary medical equipment, adequate ventilation equipment, etc.
  3. Sufficient monitoring capacity: area-wide tests, tracking of movements.

In order to succeed, coordination, respect and solidarity among Member States is essential and action must be based on scientific evidence.

(more information can be found here)

What roles do the EU institutions play?

European democracy is refusing to let a global virus bring it to its knees. Just as under normal circumstances, we can rely on the ability of the EU institutions to take decisions and act effectively during the coronavirus crisis. 

At present, the EU is focussing its efforts on research, the economy, transport and mobilityHealth, employment and social policy are primarily Member State matters (Art. 168 of the EU Treaty). In these areas as well, however, the European level is doing its utmost in a coordinating and supporting role. The European Parliamentary Research Service has also emphasised the high added value of cooperation in the health sphere, picking out pandemics as one area where such cooperation is particularly important (link).

The European Council (EU Heads of State and Government) immediately emphasised the need for joint European action. At videoconferences held on 10, 17 and 26 March 2020, the EU Heads of State and Government set five priorities in the fight against the coronavirus, and all the Member States and the EU institutions and bodies immediately took measures in those areas: (more details)

  1. Limiting the spread of the virus
  2. Providing medical equipment
  3. Promoting research
  4. Tackling the socioeconomic consequences
  5. Helping citizens stranded in third countries

In daily videoconferences, the European Commission, the EU executive, is coordinating discussions between the EU health ministers, the EU interior ministers and the Heads of State and Government. Ten days before the World Health Organization declared a corona pandemic, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, set up a political response team and panel of renowned virologists, which meets twice a week to develop evidence-based strategies and recommendations for action. The Commission is drawing up legislative proposals and issuing communications, implementing regulations, guidelines and recommendations.

At an extraordinary plenary session held on 26 March 2020, the European Parliament approved three urgent measures in its role as European co-legislator with the Council of the Member States. A total of 687 of the 705 MEPs voted – most of them by means of an electronic procedure. In both plenary and the committees, most proceedings are currently being conducted by videoconference. (more details)

Challenge to our liberal parliamentary democracy

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is exploiting the current crisis to advance his plan to undermine liberal democracy and the rule of law. He is now able to govern alone by decree, with no restrictions on his power, even though it is perfectly clear that decisive, far-reaching crisis management in no way necessitates the side-lining of parliament. The measures taken by the Austrian Federal Government and by many other European governments make that very clear. Misusing the serious crisis Europe is facing as a pretext for a power grab on this scale is both cynical and unscrupulous! The Commission must therefore respond immediately and, if necessary, intervene decisively with the backing of the European Court of Justice. (my press release on this matter)

Where can I get more information?