The COVID-19 pandemic: what is the EU doing about it?

    European Union flags
    FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 19, 2020. Picture taken February 19, 2020 REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

    Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

    “Europe is moving. Faced with this dramatic situation, with a duty to defend lives, livelihoods, and stability for all, the EU is acting. Of course, we had to fight against national selfishness, but now it is clear how we are going to face this emergency” – European Parliament President David Sassoli.

    “We are talking about an intervention that, overall, is close to two trillion euros. The greatest demonstration of the power of European solidarity in a long time. Comparable to the Marshall plan, this money will help us limit the effects of COVID-19, support research to identify an effective vaccine, support our economy and social protection, protect jobs and businesses. It provides money needed for our medical facilities, by doctors and staff who, with great passion and generosity, are committed to saving the lives of many. The Union cannot allow anyone to remain alone. None of you will be left alone”.

    Parliament will back up its stance with action where the measures require approval by the EU’s budgetary authorities: Parliament and Council. On Thursday this week, the European Parliament will convene an extraordinary plenary session. MEPs will, for the first time ever, debate and vote remotely. On the agenda are a legislative proposal to extend the scope of the EU Solidarity Fund to cover public health emergencies, and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, which will make available €37 billion of Cohesion Funds. An indicative allocation to Malta is of €9 million released as liquidity and a total investment related to released liquidity of €48 million.

    The measures are part of the four priorities of the EU’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The European Parliament’s Research Service has broken these down:

    1. Limiting the spread of the virus, including assessing the risk and closing external borders so that internal borders can remain open to allow the single market to function. The EU’s external flight ban has been widely reported. MEPs focused on the quick decision of EU Transport ministers last week to support green lane supply routes, as suggested by MEPs and the Commission.
      “Completely closing down borders might seem like the safest way to protect our citizens, but we all depend on imports from other member states to keep our supplies uninterrupted. Guaranteeing the unobstructed transport of essential goods such as food and guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of vital medical and protective equipment, ensures that this crisis will not turn into a catastrophe. We rely and depend on each other when it comes to our public health,” said MEP Petra de Sutter, Chair of the Internal Market Committee.
    2. Ensuring we have medical equipment by ramping up production of medical devices, issuing calls for production of medical equipment, and negotiating new supplies. For this, so countries can quickly obtain the medical equipment they need, an initial EU budget of €50 million (€40 million of which is subject to the approval of the budgetary authorities) is in the pipeline. All Member States will have access to the first ever rescEU stockpile of medical equipment, such as ventilators and protective masks, under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Joint Procurement of personal protective equipment has already proven successful: two tenders launched recently have received offers covering and even exceeding the quantities requested by the Member States for every single item requested. The PPE should be available two weeks after the states sign the contracts, which they’re expected to do rapidly.
    3. Helping researchers find a vaccine quickly: the EU Commission announced €47.5 million in Horizon 2020 funding for 17 shortlisted research projects. A further call for proposals, worth €45 million, for therapeutics and diagnostics to tackle current and future coronavirus outbreaks, is under the Innovative Medicines Initiative. The deadline is 31 March.
    4. Easing the impact on society and the economy: to help national governments support their economies, the Commission has approved a Temporary Framework allowing them to derogate from State aid rules until at least December 2020. EU finance ministers on Monday endorsed using the general escape clause on fiscal rules under the Stability and Growth Pact, allowing Member States to pump into the economy as much as they need to deal adequately with the crisis.

    The European Central Bank has committed to providing a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme to relieve government debt during the crisis. An MEP proposal is to mobilise a further €500 billion from the European Stability Mechanism, dubbed the European bazooka.

    Where do our elected representatives stand? Maltese MEPs were quick off the mark in the debate on EU action to tackle COVID-19 –  variously emphasising the need for coordinated action; for flexibility to adapt state aid rules; for a European stimulus package; for support to SMEs; for the setting up of a European health agency; for solidarity within our own communities, particularly with the elderly; and highlighting the advantages of teleworking, and the dramatic drop in air pollution, as well as Parliament’s novel ‘vote distancing’.  Joint procurement of supplies by the Member States was also urged at EU meetings by Maltese Health Minister Chris Fearne. Working together will give EU states a stronger position on the world market.

    All of this aims to address people’s health needs and economic concerns: a Times of Malta poll published this weekend shows 76% of all Maltese are concerned that the coronavirus is a threat to them personally, and 73% think it will deal a financial blow to them and their family.

    The EU measures are being supplemented by national measures. Healthcare in the EU is the responsibility and prerogative of the Member States, but within the limits of its powers, the EU has acted quickly.

    Pascal Canfin, Chair of the EP’s environment committee, summed it up:

    “Last week, Europe took several historic decisions to counter COVID-19, including its impact on the EU economy. We do not say this enough and we do not say it loud enough. Europe is doing everything it can to save lives.”