COVID-19 pandemic - what is the EU doing?
What are the leaders of the EU member states doing?
Since the start of the pandemic, EU leaders have been in close touch with one another. Since the number of cases across the EU began to rise again significantly in autumn, the heads of state and government have resumed their regular video conferences and closely coordinated their response. The focus is both on slowing the spread of the virus and on mitigating economic consequences for EU member states.
On 10 December 2020, the European Council cleared the way for the final steps towards the adoption of the Next Generation recovery fund worth 750 billion euro. These urgently needed funds for the EU’s economic and social recovery during and after the COVID-19 pandemic are set to be disbursed as quickly as possible.
What is the job of the European Commission during the crisis?
It is important to realise that the European Commission has limited authority in the health sector. Basically, every member state is responsible for organising and financing its own health system.
The main job of the European Commission is to help member states weather the crisis and make recommendations for joint action. It is very actively involved in coordinating the actions of member states during the crisis, e.g. in the fields of public health, transport, border protection, the internal market and trade. The aim is to coordinate actions and ensure that actions to fight the virus are as effective as possible.
What is the EU doing in the field of mobility?
Limiting the spread of the virus
- To make it easier to travel freely and safely in spite of the pandemic, the European Commission is to introduce a Digital Green Certificate for EU citizens by summer. It will be proof that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result, or recovered from COVID-19.
- On 15 June 2020, the European Commission’s Re-Open EU website went live. It offers all EU travellers updated information on border regulations, transport, travel restrictions, and public health and safety measures (e.g. distancing and mandatory face masks) as well as other practical tips for the individual member states. Since October there has also been a map of the entire EU with standardised colour codes - green, orange, red – based on commonly agreed criteria. The information on Re-Open EU is now also available as an app.
- Mobility in Europe is becoming safer: in mid-October, the European Commission launched an EU-wide system for the interoperability of contact tracing and warning apps. The German COVID-19 warning app now also shows potentially risky encounters with users of almost all other European COVID-19 warning apps.
- The European Commission has - as it did at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic - presented guidelines for restricting non-essential travel from non-EU countries to the EU.
Member states can refuse applicants a short-term visa and visa holders may be refused the right to enter the Schengen Area where this is deemed to constitute a threat to public health. This measure is laid out in the Schengen Borders Code and is one of the conditions on which short-term visas are issued.
What is the EU doing in the health system?
During the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission has been supporting the health systems of EU member states. It mobilises funding and takes steps to ensure a supply of medical materials, in particular the planned vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and protective gloves, but also drugs, ventilators and other medical supplies.
Supply of vaccines
- The EU states launched COVID-19 vaccinations together on 27 December 2020. So far the BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines have been authorised for use and are available. Most recently, the European Medicines Agency approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
- The European Commission has contract with the manufacturers of six promising vaccines. Negotiations are ongoing with two other companies. A portfolio of over 2.6 billion doses has been secured. Once the vaccines are approved for use and once they are manufactured they are distributed to member states in line with the population numbers.
- The European Union is joining forces with global partners. On 4 May 2020, the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative was launched. By June, the pledging event had brought together a total of 15.9 billion euro, which is to be used to make COVID-19 treatment, tests and vaccines available worldwide.
Supply of medical products
- EU leaders have endorsed a European Commission recommendation on testing strategies. The Emergency Support Instrument will provide 100 million euros for the purchase and use of rapid antigen tests across the EU. At the same time, the Commission is launching a joint procurement procedure.
- The European Commission has signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company Gilead to secure treatment doses of Veklury, the brand name for Remdesivir. Remdesivir is the first drug authorised at EU level to treat COVID-19. With the coordination and support of the Commission, member states and the United Kingdom took delivery of the first batches of the drug at the beginning of August to meet their urgent needs.
- In response to a proposal of the European Commission, the European Union is building a strategic stock of medical equipment, including ventilators and protective masks. It has provided three billion euros from the EU budget to finance the emergency instrument alongside the joint equipment stock procured under the rescEU reserve. Member states are providing the same sum.
- European public procurement regulations offer great flexibility in emergencies. Urgently needed medical goods can be purchased within days or even hours. The European Commission has published guidelines explaining in detail how public procurement contracts can be placed swiftly in compliance with regulations.
What is the EU doing in the field of research?
The European Commission is supporting research and development work on vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems to address the coronavirus. These are to be provided to everyone who needs them. This requires scientists to share knowledge and information across national borders. To this end, the European Commission has launched a number of different measures.
The European Commission is using its research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, to mobilise over 1 billion euros. Of this sum, over 660 million euros has been invested in developing vaccines, new treatment method, diagnostic tests and medical systems.
European COVID-19 data platform
The new European data platform aims to bring together available research data swiftly and to use it jointly. Research scientists can store a lot of new findings about COVID-19 centrally, share information and analyse the data.
The data platform is part of the Commission’s ERAvsCorona Action Plan. It aims to achieve close coordination, cooperation, data sharing and joint financing efforts on the parts of the Commission and member states.
Team of experts
Last year the European Commission assigned a team of experts on COVID-19. The epidemiologists and virologists from various EU states were to elaborate EU guidelines for risk management that were scientifically well founded and provided for coordinated action. On the basis of scientific reports produced by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) and the Commission’s team of experts, initial recommendations for common measures and testing strategies were published on 19 March 2020. On 30 March 2020, these were followed by recommendations regarding the resilience of health systems.
From Germany, Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute and Christian Drosten, Head of the Virology Institute at Berlin’s Charité Hospital are members of the advisory panel.
What is the EU doing for the economy?
Recovery plan for the economy
EU leaders have agreed on a 1.8 trillion euro recovery package, within the scope of which the recovery fund NextGenerationEU will support the multiannual financial framework for the period 2021 to 2027. This is to enable the Commission to borrow up to 750 billion euros on the markets. 390 billion euros of this sum is to be made available to particularly hard hit member states as grants and 360 billion euros as loans. The agreement also contains a clear commitment to respect the rule of law and protect the financial interests of the EU and its member states.
The EU finance ministers had already put together a package of measures with a total volume of over 500 billion euros on 9 April 2020. This aid programme is based on three safety nets that were subsequently approved by EU leaders on 23 April 2020 at a meeting of the European Council in the form of a video conference:
1. Safety net for business. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is to provide large-scale support for small and medium businesses to help them finance immediate commitments
2. Safety net for workers. A Europe-wide instrument to finance short-term work was to be created (SURE, Support mitigating Unemployment Risks in Emergency)
3. Safety net for member states in particular need, provided by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which was put in place following the financial crisis in 2007/08.