If you want a more European response to emergencies like the coronavirus crisis, you’ll have to hand over some power.
That’s the message to leaders of EU countries from the European Commission’s crisis management chief, Janez Lenarčič.
Attempting to draw early lessons from the crisis, EU leaders declared after a videoconference last week that “the time has come to put into place a more ambitious and wide-ranging crisis management system within the EU” and asked the Commission to come up with proposals.
The leaders’ call followed a chaotic initial reaction to the crisis, in which EU governments closed borders with each other and imposed bans that stopped medical equipment going to fellow members of the bloc.
“I would say very simply, you cannot manage a crisis without a corresponding power to take decisions, it’s as simple as that,” Lenarčič said in a video interview with POLITICO.
Many EU member governments regard even the idea of treaty change as a kind of Pandora’s Box that could unleash many other debates and demands.
When the pandemic emerged, the Commission was handcuffed as the key powers were in the hands of member states, according to Lenarčič, the European commissioner for crisis management who also holds the title of European Emergency Response Coordinator.
“Currently, our mechanism, myself, we don’t have those powers,” he said. “Health, civil protection, border management … these areas are all the competence of the member states. The Commission can only encourage or discourage. We can ask, we can beg, we can persuade, but the Commission cannot take direct measures. It’s a matter of competences.”
But Lenarčič — who previously served as Slovenia’s ambassador to the EU — noted that even if governments want to hand more powers to the EU level, transferring them would not be straightforward as it would involve changing the bloc’s fundamental treaty.
“If you want to change it in the spirit of more ambitious crisis management system, then you have to change the treaty because the treaty says these are areas of the competence of member states,” he said.
Many EU member governments are extremely wary of treaty change, a complex process that would require the approval of parliaments and, in some countries, referendums. They also regard even the idea of treaty change as a kind of Pandora’s Box that could unleash many other debates and demands.
The limitations of the current system were laid bare at the start of the crisis when Italy, the country that has recorded the most deaths due to the coronavirus, asked EU partners for medical equipment for individual protection via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. “Unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call,” complained Italy’s EU ambassador, Maurizio Massari.
The Commission has since launched four joint procurement requests and said that it has asked companies for the fastest delivery times possible.
“I would insist that this mechanism works well, if there is solidarity, if there is participation and cooperation,” Lenarčič’ stressed.
He said the Italian case had led everyone to realise there has to be more capacity at EU level to hand over equipment to member countries in need. He noted the Commission had decided to create a stockpile of medical equipment such as ventilators and protective masks. “That’s more ambitious than we had so far, so that’s one step in … the direction” that EU leaders had suggested.
“But most of the rest [of the changes] would need to be accompanied by the transfer of competences,” he continued. “And honestly, I don’t think that this would be an easy exercise.”
However, he did not say whether the Commission would ask for more powers.
“We will explore all other ways [of] how to make such a crisis management system more ambitious. If you don’t transfer additional competences … then there are other ways to bring closer together member states and EU institutions,” he said.
“And we also tried to do that by convening regular teleconferencing with the health ministers, interior ministers and other ministers so as to facilitate greater coordination in managing this crisis.”