Key word: solidarity

Humankind and Europe face a moral test - will we pass it?

From the start of the pandemic one word has taken over the entire world, and particularly Europe. This word is solidarity. It's been said every hour, even every minute - repeated by frightened prime ministers and presidents, exhausted from constant explanations heads of crisis response centres set up especially to fight the coronavirus, by top officials and police brass who provide logistic support, by medical professionals with clouded minds from lack of sleep and deficit of medicines and equipment.

It's been said that a month before the EU started the current battle for medical masks, breathing ventilators and other equipment, for test kits, etc., and before they rushed to rescue the collapsing economies, many of the European governments reported to Brussels that their healthcare systems were prepared and have the necessary resources. Few weeks after China locked down 60 million people in Hubei province, the European Commission and the governments of individual countries sent messages saying that the situation is “under control”. This optimistic assessment and sluggish response obviously ran counter to the realities of the day.

The first steps the EU took were more than cautious - first it gave green light to the national governments to be fairly flexible, that is to make use of the allocated structural and regional funds unspent so far. But President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen kept claiming that the activities of the Union's executive bodies were limited by the current multiannual financial framework.

Gradually, the governments came to realise the gravity of the situation but instead of focusing on joint efforts, many of them resorted to protectionist policies, putting up trade barriers in order to prevent export of medical equipment and gear. A little later finance ministers from the 19 countries using the euro currency agreed to let partners in distress borrow up to 2% of their GDP from the European Stability Mechanism, a bailout fund set up during the debt crisis a decade ago with lending assets of €410bn.

The governments of the most affected states on the continent, Italy and Spain, urged Brussels to launch a new Marshall Plan that would involve massive public investment in the whole of the 27-country bloc. They also defended the idea of coronabonds, European debt issues that would help to share out risk among all EU countries.

Italian PM Giuseppe Conte appeared on German television to argue that the issuance of the bonds would not make Germans liable for Italian debt. Creating eurobonds “does not mean … that German citizens would pay a single euro of Italian debts,” Conte told public broadcaster ARD. The leader of one of the EU founding states even uttered the harsh words that the Union no longer has any reasons to exist as it is failing to respond adequately.

Nevertheless, the wealthy states of Germany, the Netherlands and Austria remained unyielding and refused to loosen Europe's purse strings. Dutch PM Mark Rutte even came under criticism domestically, with his own coalition partners distancing themselves from his opposition to the measure and saying hard-hit Spain and Italy need help.

At long last, on 2 April, money for emergency measures was finally found. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU will respond to the epidemic by allocating €2.77tn, which is the largest sum the bloc has ever provided for crisis management. As long as the epidemic is raging, the Commission will grant a short-time employment loan scheme, SURE, mobilising €100bn to keep people in jobs and businesses running. According to von der Leyen, this is a huge sum that will be available to all Member States but the first eligible for aid will be Italy and Spain as most affected by the pandemic. All EU countries will be the guarantors of the scheme but, of course, they will have to pay back the grants after the pandemic is over. Besides, it became clear that the EU will suspend the requirements for co-financing of the cohesion, regional and social funds by the Member States for fiscal year 2020-2021, so that the governments may absorb the available funds fully. The EC also announced that the rest of the measures will be taken on a step-by-step basis with regard to the arising needs.

And once again the tale about solidarity has been exploited.

“With this, we are joining forces with Member States to save lives and protect livelihoods. This is European solidarity,” Ursula von der Leyen underscored.

She even extended apologies to Italy for the behaviour of the European institutions until that moment, but she baulked at the coronabonds request. “Today Europe is mobilising alongside Italy. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case,” von der Leyen wrote in Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. “It must be recognised that in the early days of the crisis, in the face of the need for a common European response, too many have thought only of their own home problems.”

We don't underappreciate the examples of solidarity - the countries less affected by the coronavirus, like Germany, have already admitted infected patients from France. Health authorities exchange information and will be able even to exchange teams of qualified medical personnel, a web conferencing platform will allow clinicians to exchange knowledge, discuss and share clinical cases across the EU, between the neighbouring regions. The Commission has devised a system that will help coordinate all these efforts, which is quite commendable.

The European Union is a complicated mechanism, as we all know. Decisions are taken at several levels and so far the decision making has always been difficult - collision of interests slows down the process and sometimes impedes efficiency. The big states always take advantage of the smaller ones - just remember the case involving haulers from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, etc. Every day different TV programmes tell us how many Bulgarian professionals are working for the German, British, French, etc., healthcare systems.

Yes, the Member States differ in their economic power, experience, discipline and even history. Among the so-called EU funds recipients there are countries with low administrative capacity and widespread corruption, which makes the donor states especially critical of the EU budget utilisation. Not to mention the EU red tape or the frequently unwarranted administrative expenses.

We must admit that hardly anyone across the globe, including each of us, could have ever imagined this happening - one million infected, 60,000 deaths worldwide from the coronavirus, so far. Even the fans of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction hardly believed that scenes from films and books may come true, that the planes will be landed, the streets of the largest metropolises will be empty, and people will be confined to their homes, most of them smitten with fear about their future and prospects for survival.

The European institutions are also staffed with people, and they are now working and living under the state of emergency. These people bear the burden of high expectations, as we all hope that they will find the right solutions and that the grimmest forecasts for the coronavirus impact on the world economy will prove to be exaggerated. Probably they pin their hopes on that, too. The coronavirus can damage the immune system of the Union. The situation is unprecedented and the joint measures, as well as solidarity, really are a pledge for the future of the European unity. First and foremost, this is a morality test for every one of us. Will we pass it?

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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