The fight against coronavirus is — finally — in full swing in the EU.
The European Commission is getting more aggressive in pushing for solidarity among EU countries.
A case in point is the wrangling over face masks, after Germany banned their export and France took control over their production. Germany then began easing its policy late last week, and on Sunday, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton took credit for getting the two countries to approve their export after “intense conversations.”
Under the new policy, the whole EU will ban the export of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) outside the bloc unless member countries give explicit approval, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said on Sunday.
Brussels also gave countries guidance Monday on border measures, after many of them started shutting them down over the past few days.
While EU institutions have a lot of power over some policies, such as trade and competition, national governments control many others — including health.
Still, an underlying tension remains: While EU institutions have a lot of power over some policies, such as trade and competition, national governments control many others — including health.
So what can EU institutions actually do in response to coronavirus? POLITICO lays out in detail three areas where the bloc can take action.
Cross-Border Health Threats Decision
The EU’s legal power to react to health emergencies lies in a so-called 2013 Cross-Border Health Threats Decision, adopted in the wake of the 2009 influenza H1N1 pandemic. It’s meant to help EU countries assess risks and work on a coordinated response.
In this pandemic, the former seems to be working better than the latter. Despite daily calls for coordination, governments have taken different measures (PPE exports are one example), and increasingly implementing more border controls.
Still, the Decision has a set of tools EU states can use. One is the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) to communicate about cross-border health threats. First set up in 1998 for communicable diseases, it was extended to all cross-border threats to health as part of the Decision. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, it didn’t seem to be used to its full potential; at their March 6 meeting, for example, health ministers were still asking to be informed on what other countries were doing before those measures are made public.
Perhaps more successful is the Health Security Committee — a Commission group reuniting representatives of national health authorities responsible for coordinating preparedness, response and international cooperation measures. EU health ministries have used that for 11 conference calls to date, most recently on March 13, when national representatives discussed joint procurement of eye protection equipment and respirators, among many other measures.
Meanwhile, much of the scientific advice about coronavirus comes from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Most recently, the Commission has asked for ECDC guidance on how to best deploy protective equipment amid scarcity as well as an overview on the readiness of national crisis emergency systems. It also asked for ECDC guidance on health-systems contingency planning to address “scenario 4,” in which there’s widespread sustained transmission of the virus and health care systems are overburdened, according to the ECDC.
The ECDC was created in the wake of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s. The Decision made clear its oversight of the EWRS.
But now, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Von der Leyen said last week that Brussels would assemble a team of epidemiologists and virologists to provide expert advice. That team is still to be announced.
Another tool the EU can use is the Civil Protection Mechanism, which began in 2001 and has been upgraded after various disasters since.
Finally, the Decision allows countries to band together voluntarily in buying medical countermeasures. Von der Leyen announced on Sunday two new efforts to jointly procure testing kits and ventilators. The Commission also launched a tender on March 2 to jointly procure PPE. Twenty countries have signed up to take part, although some health ministers have criticized the process for taking too long.
The Commission is evaluating the offers received for equipment, with the aim to have a contract in place by early April, according to a Commission official. It’s up to national governments to decide how to allocate the equipment, the official said.
The Civil Protection Mechanism
Another tool the EU can use is the Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM), which began in 2001 and has been upgraded after various disasters since.
The idea: Any country, an EU member or not, can ask the EU for help in the event of a disaster. The Commission coordinates the EU’s response with its Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), but each country decides how it will help.
This was used when the coronavirus outbreak first hit China, when France repatriated EU citizens from Wuhan. Planes sent to bring citizens back also took tons of medical equipment to China.
It was used again to repatriate EU and U.K. citizens quarantined on the Princess Diamond cruise ship in Japan, and for a third time last Wednesday to help U.K. and EU citizens on the Grand Princess cruise ship in the U.S.
Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič has stressed the need for countries to actually participate in the mechanism for it to work.
That mechanism has its limitations, though.
When the coronavirus took hold in Italy, Rome asked fellow EU countries for help supplying face masks through the CPM. It got zero response for weeks, until this weekend when Germany said it would send one million face masks. More broadly, Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič has stressed the need for countries to actually participate in the mechanism for it to work.
Another power of the CPM that countries have yet to use is rescEU, a European reserve of various resources including a fleet of firefighting planes, that can be deployed during an emergency. Last Tuesday, Council President Charles Michel said EU countries would expand rescEU to create a stockpile of PPE, including face masks. Vaccines, medicines, intensive care medical equipment and laboratory supplies are also on that stockpile list.
The Commission has put forward a proposal to get this to happen, and it is now up to the member states to get this through “with urgency,” a Commission official said.
Finally, there is the “European Medical Corps” — medical professionals, doctors and laboratory facilities — that can be sent to help during a health crisis. It was used during a yellow fever outbreak in Angola in 2016, but no EU country has asked for this yet during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR)
The IPCR is a tool to coordinate at the highest EU political level for crises that cut across sectors, such as terrorist attacks. The Croatian presidency activated it to coordinate during this pandemic, and it was also deployed in Europe’s other crisis — the migration stand-off at the Greek border with Turkey.
It was under the IPCR that Michel held his video call with EU leaders last Tuesday.
But diplomats working on health issues don’t seem to think this mechanism has added much value beyond the systems relating to cross-border health threats and the CPM. One EU diplomat said it’s just “something nice to have politically.”
A meeting of EU ambassadors under the mechanism is expected to take place on Tuesday. Some participants will join via videoconference.
Still, only time will tell if these tools will help the EU protect citizens from the virus.