COVID-19 pandemic - what is the EU doing?
Since the start of the pandemic, EU leaders have been in close touch with one another. During the first few weeks regular video conference allowed them to discuss the latest situation, with a view to mastering the challenges posed by COVID-19 together. Initially the main focus was on slowing the spread of the virus. Later, attention shifted increasingly to the question of how the EU can mitigate the economic consequences for the European Union.
On 17 July, the EU leaders met in person again in Brussels for the first time since the start of the pandemic. At a special European Council meeting they agreed on 21 July, after several days of talks, on a recovery fund worth 750 billion euros. The aim is for the recovery fund to come into effect on 1 January 2021, once it has been approved by the European Parliament and the 27 national parliaments.
EU recovery fund – "a good signal"
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 has done much to coordinate 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 was to coordinate actions and ensure that the virus could be fought as effectively as possible. The European Commission works with businesses and member states to improve supplies of medical equipment (including protective equipment) throughout Europe. And the Commission has drawn up a road map for the gradual easing of restrictions so as to enable member states to take a coordinated approach.
Limiting the spread of the virus
- In view of the improving health situation in the EU, on 11 June the European Commission recommended that member states lift travel restrictions within the EU as of 15 June 2020.
- 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.
- To limit the spread of the coronavirus, member states decided on 17 March to act on the recommendations of the European Commission, and impose a uniform ban on non-essential travel from third countries for a limited period (which was subsequently extended several times). Since 30 June the provisional travel restrictions for some third countries, jointly determined by the EU and member states, have been gradually lifted.
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 visas are issued.
Citizens stranded in third countries
In March, the European Council undertook to ensure coordination between its embassies and the EU delegations in third countries. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, member states have organised a huge number of flights to bring over 520,000 people back to Europe. In addition, the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism has helped bring almost 60,000 EU citizens home from around the world.
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
- A vaccine strategy proposed in June by the European Commission aims to facilitate access to a safe and effective vaccine as swiftly as possible. Sufficient production of vaccines for all EU member states is to be ensured.
- To this end, the Commission has negotiated deals with various vaccine manufacturers, such that all EU member states will be able to purchase a vaccine as soon as one is available.
- The European Union is pooling 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 euros, which is to be used to make COVID-19 treatment, tests and vaccines available worldwide.
Supply of medical products
- In response to a proposal of the European Commission, the European Union is building a strategic stock of medical equipment. Under the rescEU reserve, ventilators and protective face masks are being procured. The medical materials are to be used in those EU states where it is most urgently needed. The EU is providing 380 million euros for this.
- The EU Solidarity for Health Initiative has around 6 billion euros at its disposal. It supports the health systems in EU member states directly. The emergency aid is designed to help finance and coordinate the transport of medical equipment and patients, recruit additional medical staff and put up mobile hospitals.
- 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.
- 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.
- The European Commission has temporarily exempted imports of medical products from non-EU member states from customs duties and value added tax, easing the financial burden of supplying doctors, nursing staff and patients with urgently needed medical equipment.
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:
- 450 million euros for the development of COVID-19 treatment, tests and vaccines
- 400 million euros in guarantees for European Investment Bank (EIB) loans to fund COVID-19 research and development at an early stage (including industrial-scale production)
- 150 million euros for disruptive innovations to address the pandemic within the scope of the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator.
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 and joint financing efforts on the parts of the Commission and member states.
Team of experts
On 17 March, 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. On 30 March, 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.
EU database for COVID-19 research (German only)
The German government is in constant contact with the European Commission and the governments of EU member states in order to coordinate economic measures.
Recovery plan for the economy
For the recovery phase, following the acute effort to combat the pandemic, a recovery fund is needed. From 17 to 21 July, a special meeting of the European Council hammered out the form this should take. The 27 EU leaders agreed on the Next Generation EU recovery instrument. It is worth 750 billion euros and is part of the reworked EU budget. 390 billion euros are 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 aim is to have the recovery instrument come into effect on 1 January 2021 after it has been approved by the European Parliament and the national parliaments.
The EU finance ministers had already put together a package of measures with a total volume of over 500 billion euros on 9 April. 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.
To help individuals and the economy, the Commission had already taken extensive emergency measures:
- Under the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, the European Commission provided a total of 37 billion euros in liquidity assistance for the regions, within the scope of the EU structural fund.
- This was supplemented by a package of measures of the European Investment Bank to mobilise financing up to a value of 40 billion euros.
- The European Commission applies EU budget regulations flexibly, so that EU member states can spend what is required to fight the crisis.
- The European Commission opened the European Union Solidarity Fund for the COVID-19 crisis, giving the worst affected member states access to additional support worth up to 800 million euros. The European Union Solidarity Fund can now be used not only in the case of natural disasters, but also for public health emergencies.
- The European Commission passed a limited-term framework on state aid which makes it easier for member states to support businesses with grants, loans and guarantees.
- The European Central Bank launched the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) worth 750 billion euros, which is to address the economic consequences of the pandemic.
EU recovery fund – "a good signal"