Our president was the surprise guest of this week! He commented on issues such as the Sputnik vaccine crisis in Slovakia, Russia’s terrorism in Czechia in 2014, the Visegrad 4 vis a vis Moscow, or the Conference on the #FutureofEurope.Roland Freudenstein Mikuláš Dzurinda Central and Eastern Europe COVID-19 EU-Russia
The Week in 7 Questions with Mikuláš Dzurinda
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
07 May 2021
Net@Work Day 4 – Panel 1: SDG 3 and its Challenge for EU Public Health Policy
Live-streams - Multimedia
22 Apr 2021
“Vaccines, oil, or investments are commodities that are used as tools of influence and power. Those who say that they do not pose any risk deny the obvious reality.” This is how Czech General Petr Pavel commented on the use of the Russian Sputnik vaccine in the EU without its registration. He said this as the first vaccine doses were arriving in Slovakia, nearly causing the government to collapse. After a turbulent month on the Slovak political scene, Prime Minister Igor Matovič, who procured the Russian vaccine without the agreement of his coalition partners, stepped down trying to calm down the situation and preventing early elections. Just one week after the appointment of the new government, Slovakia is facing a new crisis. And again, the reason is the Russian vaccine and Igor Matovič.
It was only last week that the scientific journal Lancet published information that the batches of the Sputnik vaccine delivered to Slovakia differed from those that were declared as safe on the basis of clinical trials conducted at the beginning of February. Moreover, the Slovak drug regulatory agency cannot recommend the use of the vaccine, since the producer did not supply around 80% of the documentation. Russia’s Direct Investment Fund, probably offended by that review, officially requested that Slovakia return the vaccines. It labelled the conclusions of Slovak scientists fake news, and accused them of wanting to damage the reputation of their vaccine, perceiving them as pure provocation.
If Igor Matovič, while still prime minister, would have focused more on governing and less on provoking fights, his rivalries with coalition partners, and building his saviour image, Slovakia would not have lost about 3 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
All this was a signal for former PM Matovič to fly to Moscow last week, allegedly for “technical negotiations”, to salvage what he could. But there was a clear political message – to save the Sputnik vaccine for Slovakia, despite “the dirty game being played with Russia’s hybrid weapon”. The hybrid weapon terminology comes from Slovak foreign affairs minister Ivan Korčok, who labelled the vaccine “a hybrid war tool”. This unfolded as Matovič was kow-towing to the Kremlin while Russian troops were moving towards the Ukrainian border. Ukraine has just last month emerged from a minor diplomatic crisis with Slovakia. When asked what he promised Russia for Sputnik deliveries, Matovič “jokingly” replied – Transcarpathia (a formerly Slovak region in Western Ukraine). Anyone with an even elementary knowledge of foreign policy knows how sensitive the topic of territorial integrity is for Ukraine. Slovak diplomats had to apologise for his words.
To make matters even worse, his “diplomatic mission” went from Moscow directly to Budapest. There, he personally asked prime minister Viktor Orbán to help test the Russian vaccine for Slovakia, because Hungary was the first EU country to roll out vaccination with Sputnik, without it obtaining EMA registration. While in Budapest, he did not forget to praise prime minister Orbán for not limiting vaccination to EU-procured vaccines, but also turning to the East, namely to Russia and China. He challenged the reputation of Slovak scientists who dared not to give a cheap and swift stamp of approval to the Sputnik vaccine. And he did not forget to add that all those who agitate against the Russian vaccine are idiots. It is true that there is demand in Slovakia for Sputnik vaccination, but only subject to its approval by the national or the European drug regulatory agency.
If Igor Matovič, while still prime minister, would have focused more on governing and less on provoking fights, his rivalries with coalition partners, and building his saviour image, Slovakia would not have lost about 3 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Only thanks to EU solidarity will Slovakia receive another 700,000 vaccine doses by late June to enable the vaccination process to continue at all.
His lightning visits to Moscow and Budapest, as finance minister, which the new Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger learned about at the last minute, and the foreign affairs minister only through his ambassadors, confirmed that Igor Matovič does not understand the basic principles of democratic governance of the state, and continues to feel like a de facto prime minister. His brinkmanship risks reigniting the just recently deflated coalition crisis, damaging the reputation of Slovakia, and confounding its partners in the EU. But, most importantly, they provide grist to the Kremlin’s mill, which is naturally very happy to embrace EU countries begging for help because “Brussels has failed again”.
The former Slovak prime minister bought the fallacy that his genius would rescue Slovakia from the pandemic and resolve the European problem of vaccine shortages through strange legalisation and publicity for the use of the Russian vaccine, whatever the costs. Thus far, he has only sparked diplomatic scandals. With his political naïveté and inexperience, he has splendidly served the politics of Viktor Orbán, who has an additional ally in his “anti-Brussels game”. Russia, in turn, has gained a useful strawman through whom it can successfully pursue its politics of division of the EU.
The reality of the political scene of Slovakia today perfectly illustrates what happens when boundless populism wins elections. Only a year ago, Slovak citizens believed in a change for the better, in the return of decency to public life. Igor Matovič trampled that hope in just one year. The year of his rule is already now considered to be the most chaotic year in Slovak politics. Besides tarnished relations with neighbours, the president, and coalition partners, Slovak scientists and diplomats are now also publicly distancing themselves from him and demanding apologies. If he really had Slovakia´s future on his mind, he would mend his ways – or step aside.Viktória Jančošeková COVID-19 Eastern Europe EU-Russia
The Sputnik Shock: Slovakia’s vaccination crisis and its political fallout
15 Apr 2021
Don’t miss the President of the Eurogroup answer Roland Freudenstein’s questions on the priorities for 2021 & 2022, the EU’s recovery, fiscal rules, a potential increase in inflation, or the taxation of digital companies, among other economic issues.Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 Economy Eurozone Macroeconomics
The Week in 7 Questions with Paschal Donohoe
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
02 Apr 2021
In early 2020, the EU was criticised for lagging behind in providing COVID-related support, while China and Russia were delivering medical aid equipment and masks to EU Member States. We still remember the “From Russia with Love” COVID aid operation to Italy in March 2020, or the plane full of medical supplies from China. A year later, both countries are promoting their vaccines in the Eastern Partnership region (EaP). This time however, the EU is part of the action as well. Through its contributions to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) and extra financial support earmarked for deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to the region, it is important for the EU to show its support and reliability to its Eastern neighbours and position itself as a respectable player in the Russian and Chinese game of bilateral vaccine diplomacy. In the age of disinformation and fake news, it is also extremely important for Europe to better communicate its work and not allow its efforts to go unnoticed.
Unlike with the distribution of Russian and Chinese vaccines, there are no airport press conferences, nor flashy inauguration events to promote the European contribution.
Besides their shared Soviet past, there’s another characteristic that unites the six Eastern Partnership countries at the moment – the high level of scepticism among the population towards COVID-19 vaccines. Many citizens of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova state they do not trust the vaccine, with apprehension towards the jab reaching 41% in Georgia and 53%, one of the highest percentages, in Ukraine.
Despite the third wave of infections hitting most of the EaP counties and forcing their governments to impose lockdowns of varying strictness, the respect for anti-COVID measures remains low, leading to a rise in positive cases. Adding this to a general mistrust towards vaccines does not look promising for achieving herd immunity anytime soon.
The reasons for scepticism are multifold. Populations in many post-Soviet republics are traditionally wary of vaccines, fearing side effects from poor quality drugs. The mistrust has also been amplified by allegations from politicians about low-quality vaccines, corruption scandals, and misinformation spread through social media. Even worse, in some countries like Ukraine, the reluctance to get vaccinated appears even among medical workers.
The low levels of confidence in vaccination campaigns have been fuelled by political struggles and information wars. Conspiracy theories and misinformation over social media have also contributed to creating a massive distrust within society. However, the principal cause of scepticism remains distrust towards state institutions and the quality of purchased vaccines.
Most of the six countries started the vaccine rollout between January and March 2021, unfortunately with quite scarce results. Azerbaijan kicked off its vaccination program on January 18, making it the first country in the Caucasus or Central Asia to do so. Belarus began its vaccination drive by distributing the country’s first round of the Sputnik jab already in December 2020. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova caught up with the first vaccines in February and March. But where are the vaccines coming from?
All of the EaP States, besides Belarus, joined the COVAX scheme, which aims to ensure parity in distribution and access to the vaccine for all interested countries. However, the waiting list is quite a long one. Belarus took a different path, becoming the first country outside Russia to approve Sputnik V and has recently received a batch of vaccines from China, providing a gesture of good strategic partnership between the two countries.
On the contrary, when offered Sputnik V, Ukrainian president Zelensky refused it. The country received its first shipment of AstraZeneca doses produced by India’s Serum Institute and signed a contract with the Chinese Sinovac. Azerbaijan has also been relying on the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine and, similarly to Georgia and Armenia, is on the list to receive the British-Swedish AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine through COVAX.
On 11 February, the European Union, in partnership with the WHO, launched a new regional programme of over €40 million, aimed at providing critical assistance to ensure local readiness and preparedness for safe and effective vaccination of the population in each of the six Eastern Partnership countries. Commissioner OlivérVárhelyi, responsible for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, stated, “With this new programme that we launch today in partnership with the WHO, the EU shows that it delivers on its commitment to support our Eastern Partners to fight the health crisis.” This extra support could not be more timely.
Let’s not forget that vaccination campaigns in these countries are being carried out amidst internal political instabilities, such as anti-government protests in Belarus, slow-paced reforms in Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in Donbass, a crackdown on the opposition in Georgia, a recent armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and a fierce but difficult fight against corruption in Moldova led by its President Maia Sandu.
Through its contribution to the COVAX programme and the recent approval of over €40 million of aid, the EU has been providing much support and assistance to deliver the vaccines. However, unlike with the distribution of Russian and Chinese vaccines, there are no airport press conferences, nor flashy inauguration events to promote the European contribution. A better communication of the EU’s support to supplying vaccines to the region along with firm commitments to the EaP countries are strongly needed, as especially now, the EU’s assistance is, quite literally, vital.Anna Nalyvayko China COVID-19 Eastern Europe EU-Russia
Vaccinating Eastern Europe
30 Mar 2021
Angelos Chryssogelos tells us about the latest developments in the UK during the first anniversary of both the arrival of COVID-19 to the country and their official departure of the EU.Angelos Chryssogelos Brexit COVID-19
Brexitometer March 2021
Brexitometer - Multimedia
26 Mar 2021
2020’s label will unfortunately be, above all, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has marked the fates of many people, the way of life we used to enjoy, the way in which we communicated and worked, and in fact the entire world. On one hand, it has caused unprecedent fear for human lives, but on the other hand it stimulated significant ones, such as the great effort to effectively coordinate the fight against the virus and the decision to create the Recovery Fund – Next Generation EU. However, we ended the year with the faith that the vaccines humanity developed will save human lives and gradually get the situation under control, also eliminating the pandemic’s devastating impact on the economy.
Another sad moment of 2020 for the EU was, of course, the UK’s official exit. It was a very painful process, but largely chaotic on the British side. Even though we parted “in an orderly fashion”, the consequences will be felt on both sides for years to come.
Another unquestionably significant event of 2020 was the US presidential election. The pandemic, along with the events surrounding the US election, such as the attack on the Capitol, proved how fragile democracy is, as are we. It shows the importance of taking care of democracy and fighting for it every day. It is good that American democratic institutions have shown resilience and functionality and that Joe Biden became President of the United States. Undoubtedly, it acts as renewed impetus for the West as a whole to restore inclusion. For the EU itself, it is a challenge to effectively contribute to a revitalisation of transatlantic relations.
Another development has demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of democracy in several EU member states, notably in the CEE region. Democracy has continued to deteriorate in Hungary and Poland, even though an article 7 procedure has already been initiated against them.
While it seems that civic society has suffered some losses in several EU countries, in some countries in our Eastern neighbourhood, we can witness its awakening, especially in Belarus, after the rigged presidential election, and in Russia, after the attempt to kill civil activist Alexei Navalny. The recent development in our Eastern neighbourhood is a great challenge for us Europeans. We are obliged to contribute with concrete steps and activities to support human and civil rights and their protection in these countries.
For the Martens Centre, 2020 was not only about adapting to a new way of working and interacting during the pandemic. It was about mapping the developments mentioned above and striving to come up with concrete solutions on how to face the key political issues and to prevent new ones.Mikuláš Dzurinda COVID-19
After 1 Year, a New Chapter for the Martens Centre
19 Mar 2021
Niklas Nováky Álvaro de la Cruz COVID-19 Defence
Defence Dialogue Episode 10 – Vaccine Diplomacy and Europe’s ‘Soft’ Power
Defence Dialogues - Multimedia
10 Mar 2021
MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere discussed a series of timely EU-related topics with Roland Fredenstein like Brexit, Covid-19, the Digital Markets Act, or Russia.Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 Digital EU-Russia
The Week in 7 Questions with Tom Vandenkendelaere
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
05 Mar 2021
COVID-19 has profoundly impacted Europe in the past months. Battling the multiple waves of this pandemic, all EU member states have faced many challenges. Simultaneously, the EU has had to grapple with long-standing trends in the world—both those that have intensified and those that have remained unchanged since the outbreak of the virus but are still pressing. We do not know when the crisis will be over, and yet we must face the consequences of the pandemic and learn its lessons.
This event will reflect on the period of the COVID-19 pandemic up until now: the challenges that the EU and countries around the world have faced in this time of crisis, and the lessons that can be drawn from these challenges.Constantine Arvanitopoulos Niklas Nováky COVID-19 European Union
European View Launch The Great Reset: What COVID-19 Means for Europe
Live-streams - Multimedia
04 Mar 2021
It is well known that the Sahara Desert was once a large tropical forest. Due to millennia of atmospheric and climate changes, it lost most of its greenery and is now Earth’s second largest desert. Despite this, one can still find a few tiny green paradises in the Sahara, called oasis. And there is nothing of superior beauty than a hidden garden surrounded by an immense mass of sand, is there?
Until a year ago, Europe was one of the world’s largest ‘freedom forests’ and then, not due to a slow, long-term phenomenon, but because of a virus, liberties dried up, and the continent became a desert in just a few months. Initially, the process was not homogeneous, with countries adopting different strategies and some even daring to explore more ‘liberal’ approaches. Then summer came, the first wave ended, and we almost had the impression that this nightmare was finally over.
Unfortunately, as it sometimes happens in the middle of the desert, it was just a mirage, an optical illusion of the sun reflecting on the sand, mixing the optimism and will to believe that most Europeans shared after a very rough few months. A second wave hit us with the end of warm temperatures, and the liberal approaches to the fight of COVID-19 seemed to no longer exist. But, as in the Sahara, nature finds its ways and so does liberty. A handful of places in the continent did not accept lockdown as the only outcome, and came up with some creative ideas to try to save restaurants, bars, culture, sport, and so on. I am extremely glad and proud that one of these places is my hometown: Madrid.
Since the re-opening in July, Madrid’s local and regional authorities decided to maintain open everything they could. Instead of going for city or regional lockdowns, they invested massive resources into mass testing via rapid tests (earlier than most authorities in the rest of Europe), tracking, and perimetral lockdowns for specific districts/neighbourhoods with high rates of infection. This was always with a maximum length of 15 days, after which every district’s figures were re-evaluated. Elsewhere in the city and the region, cafés kept serving coffee, bars served wine and beer, shops sold their products, gyms or sports teams continued their training and competitions, and theatres, museums, and cinemas maintained a barely breathing culture alive. In late December, Le Monde -among others- explained Madrid’s exceptionalism when it came to culture.
The Madrid phenomenon has reached a level where thousands of French tourists come to the city for weekends, just to experience having some drinks with a couple of friends at a terrace, enjoying a meal in a good restaurant, or going to a concert or an opera. Some started calling the city the ‘Las Vegas of Europe’. ‘It’s liberating to be in a restaurant’, said some of these tourists to France24 recently.
But what is the price paid for this original and fairly unique approach? You are most certainly thinking that the Madrid area must have one of the highest infection and death rates. Well, think again. The mass testing strategy, together with some small efforts of tracking, district lockdowns, and a pedagogical communication that tells citizens the bare truth and treats them like adults, have resulted in fewer cases and deaths in Madrid in the second half of 2020 and the first weeks of 2021 than many other regions in the country and across Europe, despite their much harsher restrictions.
So then, what has been the price paid? Besides the frontal attacks of the national government, and the leftist parties across Spain (both City Hall and the regional government are in the hands of EPP member party Partido Popular), the price that Madrid has and is paying is no other than the regular cost of a movie ticket (around 9 euros), a glass of Vermouth in a downtown Plaza terrace (3 euros), or a rock concert (20 euros). What a frightening world, what a frightening Europe, where these common things are a rarity. And what great news that there are freedom fighters like the politicians in Madrid, willing to go against the predominant consensus, sometimes even within their own political family, and who will always prioritise the welfare of thousands of businesses and employees, with what is in my opinion one of the most imaginative approaches in Europe these days. It feels good to see some bright light as guidance for what we thought was impossible to lose: our freedom. Nothing competes with the beauty of a tropical garden in an immense mass of sand!Álvaro de la Cruz COVID-19 Leadership Values
Álvaro de la Cruz
Madrid: a European oasis
01 Mar 2021
Our colleague Dimitar Lilkov was the surprise guest this week and discussed fake news on social media, Covid-19 vaccines, Europe’s digital sovereignty, China’s digital authoritarianism, and many other key topics.Roland Freudenstein Dimitar Lilkov China COVID-19 Digital Technology
The Week in 7 Questions with Dimitar Lilkov
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
12 Feb 2021
The EU finds itself in the midst of a vaccine crisis, with the slow rollout of its vaccination program compounded by a feud with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and a diplomatic faux pas over the application of its vaccine export controls to Northern Ireland. It is clear that the EU’s vaccine debacle creates major questions for both its internal governance and its international standing. However, less attention has been paid to a more immediate and uncomfortable truth made clear by this episode: that Brexit has weakened not only Britain, but also the EU itself.
The early success of the UK vaccination campaign, whose comparison to the EU’s rates partly triggered the crisis, is a palpable demonstration of what its departure deprives the EU of. By most accounts, the EU was timid about partnering with private companies and addressing their financial demands. The UK, on the other hand, was more proactive in helping partner scientific with market actors like Oxford and AstraZeneca, as well as quicker in signing procurement deals and approving vaccines for use.
The stereotypes about a ‘flexible’ and ‘pro-free market’ UK versus a ‘rigid’ and ‘bureaucratic’ EU are often unhelpful, but it is hard to see how they do not apply in the case of the vaccine. It is difficult to admit, but it has now become clear that, with the UK in the fold, the EU’s vaccination strategy most probably would have been more effective. Access to UK universities and companies, a more commercial perspective of the needs of pharmaceutical actors, and a greater sense of urgency in the process for regulatory approval of vaccines would all have benefited the EU.
The struggles of a UK-deprived EU on the issue of vaccines may be a sneak preview of challenges to come in other policy areas. Security, finance, and digital governance are all areas that hold big challenges and where disruption is always possible in the future. They are also areas where the UK holds significant expertise and, as an EU member, historically took the lead in shaping EU policies. The vaccine debacle presages a future where the EU, unless it radically rethinks its ways, is poorer in ideas and less agile as an actor on the international stage.
For the UK, its vaccination success should not be interpreted as a vindication of Brexit or absolution of the Johnson government for all its previous failures in managing almost every other aspect of the pandemic. The exposure of the UK vaccine supply to the floated EU export controls should be a reminder that Britain will continue to need Europe. The British government avoided outright triumphalism this time, instead reaching out through diplomatic channels to the EU to clarify the application of the export ban to Northern Ireland. It is uncertain however that this or future British governments will resist the temptation to celebrate momentary ‘wins’ against the EU, with all this will entail for both sides’ ability to discuss and cooperate when common interests are at stake.
In any case, the EU should be humble to admit that this episode has exposed how, without the UK, it loses some of the necessary deftness and flexibility in dealing with market actors and adapting to crises, but also how antagonistic and disruptive Britain can be for its economy, health, and security. Although there is no indication that the UK purposefully sabotaged the EU’s vaccine efforts – as opposed to securing as much supply as possible with little regards for Europe – the very fact that a third country’s strategy created such adversity in Europe should be a wake-up call. However different in size, the EU can sustain important injuries by a UK that is disengaged and uninterested in its needs.
For too long, Europeans indulged in a stereotypical view of Brexit made up of chaos in Westminster and empty supermarket shelves. However, the vaccine crisis revealed after just a month that both the EU and the UK have been significantly weakened as a result of Brexit. Coming to terms with their mutual dependence, the two sides must use this episode as an opportunity to move closer in areas where their security and resilience can only be realised in partnership.Angelos Chryssogelos Brexit COVID-19
The Vaccine Debacle Reveals That the EU is not Immune From Brexit
03 Feb 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to strengthen the security of supply within the EU. When lockdowns were introduced in early 2020, many European countries discovered they had insufficient stockpiles of critical materials and medical equipment. The EU’s reliance on external suppliers and well-oiled supply networks was a liability when countries were all scrambling to secure the exact same goods. Although the situation has improved and the EU has taken steps to address these issues (e.g. creating rescEU medical stockpiles), improving the security of supply and hence internal resilience will continue to be a priority in 2021.
This event brings together experts to explore questions such as: What competencies do the treaties give the EU in the area of security of supply? Could member states such as Finland and Sweden, who have well-developed security of supply frameworks in place offer certain best practices to the EU? Does the EU need a security of supply strategy or a dedicated agency to advance the security of supply within the Union? How will the EU’s forthcoming Strategic Compass address security of supply?Niklas Nováky COVID-19 European Union Security
Strengthening the EU’s Security of Supply: The Way Forward in 2021
Live-streams - Multimedia
03 Feb 2021
This time we bring you former Europe Minister of Portugal, Bruno Maçães, who answered 7 questions on Covid-19, Portugal’s presidency of the Council, Russia, or Transatlantic Relations.Roland Freudenstein Bruno Maçães COVID-19 EU-Russia Transatlantic relations
The Week in 7 Questions with Bruno Maçães
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
29 Jan 2021
The first episode of 2021 is out! Watch Christian Kremer respond to 7 questions on the Capitol Riots, transatlantic relations, Covid-19, economic recovery, the German presidency of the Council, and the EPP Congress in 2021.Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 European People's Party Transatlantic
The Week in 7 Questions with Christian Kremer
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
15 Jan 2021
Our President, Mikuláš Dzurinda, welcomed everyone to the first-ever Digital NET@WORKMikuláš Dzurinda COVID-19 EU Member States
NET@WORK Day 1 – Welcoming Remarks
Live-streams - Multimedia
25 Nov 2020
The November Brexitometer is out! As usual, our London-based expert Angelos Chryssogelos tells us the latest developments and political situation for the post-EU Great Britain. “Just 6 weeks until the end of the transition period and no Deal in the horizon!”Angelos Chryssogelos Brexit COVID-19
Brexitometer November 2020
Brexitometer - Multimedia
24 Nov 2020
The Swedish policy response to COVID-19 is exceptional by international standards. This In Brief explains how this approach is determined by three articles in the Swedish Constitution. The first guarantees freedom of movement for Swedish citizens, ruling out nationwide lockdowns. The second establishes unique independence for public agencies, allowing them to design the policy response to the pandemic. The third grants exceptional powers to local government. In addition, the Swedish approach is fostered by strong trust in the government and in public authorities.COVID-19 EU Member States Leadership Social Policy
The Constitutional Basis for Sweden’s Exceptional COVID-19 Policy
28 Sep 2020
This week’s surprise guest is Miriam Lexmann, EPP Group MEP. She and Roland discussed about China during and after COVID-19, its pressure over Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party, and Human Rights.Miriam Lexmann Roland Freudenstein China COVID-19
The Week in 7 Questions with Miriam Lexmann
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
03 Jul 2020
Today with Bruno Lété to discuss EU politics with Roland Freudenstein. Watch his points on matters such as online events, the post-COVID19 era in Belgium, Transatlantic Relations, or Merkel and Putin.Bruno Lété Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 EU-Russia Transatlantic
The Week in 7 Questions with Bruno Lété
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
12 Jun 2020
Don’t miss our expert Angelos Chryssogelos’ latest analysis on the political situation in the UK during these past weeks of the Corona Crisis and its implications for the Brexit negotiations with the EU.Angelos Chryssogelos Brexit COVID-19
Brexitometer June 2020
Brexitometer - Multimedia
11 Jun 2020
Watch our surprise guest of the week answering Roland Freudenstein’s questions on teleworking, digital Education, robotics, Artificial Intelligence, tourism and China.Žiga Turk Roland Freudenstein China COVID-19 Education Technology
The Week in 7 Questions with Žiga Turk
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
05 Jun 2020
Digital contact tracing is the new buzzword in Europe. Many national governments are going forward with their plans for the roll-out of phone applications which can potentially help in identifying people who might have been exposed to Covid-19. Silicon Valley digital companies are also planning to integrate similar features in the operating systems of smartphones globally. Serious questions remain about the design and overall rationale of these digital tools. There are already calls that we should reconsider our commitment to safeguarding individual privacy in the fight against the virus.
Is there a trade-off between privacy and human health? How important is digital contact tracing for the resumption of everyday life in Europe after lockdown? Or perhaps these tools will have a limited impact and European policy-makers should think bigger than phone apps? Join us online where we will discuss these important issues with our guest expertsBruno Maçães Dimitar Lilkov COVID-19 Technology
Online Event ‘Privacy and Public Health: Thinking Bigger Than Apps’
Live-streams - Multimedia
28 May 2020
Rules-based trade is under attack, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is at risk of marginalisation. The COVID-19 pandemic and its detrimental effects on public health, value chains, and industrial production have brought back national export restrictions and stopped the free flow of goods and people. Buzz words such as ‘decoupling’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘autarky’ have quickly returned to the global stage. However, COVID-19 is not the first shock to global trade. The WTO is already facing an existential crisis due to a deadlock in negotiations, blockage of institutional reforms, and paralysis of the dispute settlement mechanism (DSM). Nevertheless, there is hope that countries experiencing the effects of disrupted trade means the EU can take the lead in global reform efforts.COVID-19 Crisis Economy Globalisation Trade
EU Trade Policy as an Economic Recovery Tool
27 May 2020
Amid -at times- stringent lockdown measures taken all over Europe, it seemed almost providential that one of our main platforms for home entertainment proposed a very bizarre show.
As we all guiltily binge-watched Netflix’s hit ‘documentary’, “Tiger King: Mayhem, Murder and Madness”, and revelled in its larger-than-life characters, we must be serious for a moment: the trade of exotic animals is a highly lucrative and unregulated business. In Europe, we have our own Tiger Kings.
Where does regulation stand at the EU level? The EU mostly settles for the current CITES regulation. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international norms system that began in the 1970s, that regulates international trade in over 35,000 species of plants and animals, including their products and derivatives. It ensures their survival in the wild with benefits for the livelihoods of local people and the global environment.
Illegal wildlife trade is a flourishing business, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons, and amounts to 7 to 23 billion dollars annually, according to a UNEP-Interpol report. Therefore, it was a welcome announcement when the European Commission pledged in its EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, published on the 20th of May, that it “will take a number of steps to crack down on illegal wildlife trade”. The Commission said that, among other things, it will revise its EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking in 2021.
This communication was initially scheduled to be released two months ago, but due to the current pandemic that has been shaking the continent and the world, it could only come out now. COVID-19 can, in fact, be directly linked to the necessity of strengthening the future Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking.
The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically shone a light on how wildlife markets, as well as the use of wildlife for traditional medicine, represents severe risks for zoonotic disease transmission. The proximity with humans provides a path for the transmission of dangerous pathogens. Wildlife markets, like the one in Wuhan from where COVID-19 is supposed to have originated, exist all around the world, and the European continent is a central hub of transport and trade for the lucrative business of wildlife trade. Besides wet markets, it is not uncommon to come across monkey meat in Brussels, or European baby eels in Asia.
Zoonoses do not have to stem from direct contact between wild animals and humans, it can also spread from wildlife to parasites (ticks, mosquitoes, fleas) or to domestic animals, before eventually spreading to humans. COVID-19 had a zoonotic origin, but is now mostly contracted from other human beings. 61% of new and re-emerging diseases are of zoonotic origins, and although they can originate from the world over, some parts of the world are more prone to develop them due to larger biodiversity, a high density of humans and animals, and the international mobility of these humans and animals. The EU is both a vital marketplace and storage space for exotic animals that could represent a risk for zoonoses.
It comes as no surprise that, with the emergence of the pandemic, members of the European Parliament have demanded a stronger clampdown on both the legal and illegal trade of exotic animals in the EU, where favourable conditions for the outbreak of diseases like COVID-19 are also rife. The difficulty lies in the effective differentiation between the legal and illegal trade of wildlife, since they are very closely intertwined, as this 2016 report by the European Parliament’s trade committee states.
This is where a positive list can step in. French MEP Agnès Evren, from the EPP Group, is hopeful the EU will include a more restrictive positive list in tradeable species in its European Green Deal plan for the environment. A positive list sets into legislation what can be brought into the EU, and everything not on the list cannot come in. This method would considerably reduce regulatory bureaucracy at the government level, and facilitate custom officers’ work when distinguishing what is legal versus what is not. Currently, the limited, legal and regulated trade often acts as a cover for illegal trade of the same species.
Criticism has been levelled against positive lists, invoking subsidiarity, and putting into question whether the EU even has competence on wildlife trade. In fact, some member states have adopted their own methods for tackling wildlife trafficking through positive lists. Others resort to negative lists which, contrary to positive lists, state which species are forbidden from trade, but where permits can be granted following a strict set of rules. Some member states barely have any regulation at all. Once an animal is inside the EU, it becomes harder to track its progression, and transportation is an even bigger headache when following every member states’ individual regulatory mechanisms. Here, EU regulation can create a level playing field for all actors, and reduce cumbersome bureaucratic efforts for national governments.
Another benefit of further regulating what comes into the EU is the possibility of checking each animal for known pathogens, such as the one which has stemmed from SARS-CoV-2. Checks would allow for closer inspection of animals that are meant for food consumption, but also those that are intended to be kept as pets, as they too can contract the virus.
The discussion on zoonotic diseases has indicated that poor regulation of wildlife trade can have serious consequences, the likes of which should not be ignored. COVID-19 is not the first and will not be the last pandemic to occur on our continent. EU regulation on this trade should, therefore, be adopted with the view of protecting the health of EU citizens.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy, which will be an integral part of the European Green Deal, offers the perfect opportunity to take immediate action in preventing the rapid spread of diseases. We should not lose sight of the bigger picture either, which is to avoid future pandemics from happening in the first place. An EU positive list for species and pets is one way to bring much-needed regulation into a trade that has proven dangerous for the safety and health of European citizens.
So no, don’t hit play on that follow-up meta-documentary about the hit documentary series. Instead, “Think Positive”.Anna van Oeveren COVID-19 Crisis European Union Trade Values
Anna van Oeveren
Animals in the time of Coronavirus: Why it’s time to think positive
27 May 2020
Amid the lockdown, we’re left awestruck by the arrival of spring: blue skies, brisk air, and the general abundance of nature. However, our senses have not been suddenly heightened as we mark the second month in self-isolation. Rather, the recent statistics from the European Environment Agency and the European Space Agency show that air pollution fell dramatically, in many European cities by up to 50%, as the world came to a standstill amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
The unprecedented public health crisis exposed the many vulnerabilities of humanity, with air pollution among the risk factors. The link between COVID-19 and poor air quality appears to be threefold: death rates are higher in patients with chronic illnesses linked with exposure to air pollution. Secondly, pollutants inflame the lungs, which become more susceptible to catching the virus. And lastly, particles of pollution might even serve as a vehicle to carry the virus further. However, smog has been deadly long before the COVID-19 outbreak and it causes 430,000 premature deaths in the EU each year. The World Health Organization identified air pollution as the biggest environmental risk to health in the EU.
Air quality in tandem with climate action
The political commitment to reduce emissions has been embodied by the fight against climate change, with the primary target being carbon dioxide emissions, whose greenhouse effect warms up the atmosphere with devastating consequences for the planet. This noble cause rightly spurred global climate action, keeping world leaders awake until dawn during lengthy international negotiations, and attracted celebrity champions from Hollywood actors to youth activists.
Yet improving air quality is just as acute, with direct benefits to human health, biodiversity, and the climate as a whole. Air pollutants are different from CO2, and, rather than piling up in the atmosphere, they negatively and directly affect the air we breathe. The substances most harmful to human health are the dust-like particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and ground-level ozone (O3). They are primarily caused by road traffic, shipping, agriculture, domestic heating, and power generation. One might wonder, if air pollution is so dangerous, shouldn’t the EU do something about it? Thankfully, it already does, as air quality has been one of Europe’s main political concerns since the late 1970s.
Air pollution is currently regulated both at the international level, by the UN Gothenburg Protocol that sets binding emission reduction targets, and on the European level, by the Ambient Air Quality Directives that sets standards for the quality of the air we breathe. The EU also oversees the National Emission Ceilings Directive, that obliges member states to reduce total emissions of certain air pollutants, alongside other sectoral legislation.
Despite these comprehensive rules, in November 2018, the European Court of Auditors published a revealing report on air pollution, which concluded that citizens’ health remains insufficiently protected. While air quality has been improving, most member states still do not comply with the EU’s air quality standards. The European Commission faces limitations in monitoring and enforcing the rules. As of January 2018, it had 32 ongoing infringement cases regarding air pollution, and these cases can take up to eight years to resolve. So how can we advance from the status quo?
Never let a good crisis go to waste
EU standards have played a pivotal role in reducing air pollution in Europe, with simple measures such as the mandatory use of catalytic converters for petrol cars since 1993, and tighter norms for all vehicles ever since. On the other hand, the fact that many member states still fail to reach some of the air quality targets demonstrates that there are limits to the effectiveness of regulation, and that over-regulation is hardly the way to go. However, we can hardly deny the ecological and health urgency.
What is needed is a paradigm that will shift the attitudes – of policymakers, businesses, and citizens – towards a new ‘normal’. And the Corona crisis might serve as the right trigger for the much-needed synergy between public support and political action. Behavioural scientists argue that people were able to comply with the stringent lockdown measures because they understood the logic behind them. The same public awareness can now be used to advance from compliance to commitment and secure some of the new habits we have adopted as a society.
The EU should continue to highlight the political priority of the European Green Deal as the centrepiece to Europe’s resilient post-Corona economic recovery with concrete, incremental initiatives towards achieving the long-term goal of climate neutrality and zero pollution. The future common agricultural policy is designed to contribute to climate action, as is the whole EU budget for the upcoming period 2021-2027. Sustainability should be mainstreamed in all EU policies, including finance and investment, promoting research, innovation, education, and improving public information. On the global level, as has been the case with climate diplomacy, the EU should promote clean air policies in all international fora.
Member states have a pivotal role to play. As governments outline plans for massive public investment and fiscal measures to aid industries struggling due to the Corona crisis, they should not miss the ecological opportunities to attain sustainable growth and resilient jobs. Strategies to achieve cleaner air for all citizens should be supplemented by the efficient and transparent use of available EU funds. People in rural areas should have access to affordable cleaner fuels to heat their homes. In cities, local governments ought to promote more sustainable forms of transportation. Many mayors already began adding cycling infrastructure and enlarging public spaces, as a step towards deconfinement while maintaining social distancing. Where feasible, employers should enhance the possibilities to work from home, which will reduce traffic peaks. And citizens should be empowered to make informed individual choices to opt for less polluting alternatives.
Let’s do it right so that we can all take a breath of fresh air!Eva Palacková COVID-19 Crisis Environment EU Institutions
Clean air is this crisis’ silver lining: let’s work towards keeping it
20 May 2020
During the lockdown, citizens were compelled to practice social distancing and work from home. In circumstances such as these, digital technologies became more crucial than ever before. As a result, an increasing number of individuals and companies are stepping up their digital game and are using digital technologies to keep their business running. Whether or not this trend will continue in the post-Covid era is yet to be determined.Sandra Pasarić Žiga Turk Gonçalo Carriço COVID-19 Technology
Online Event ‘Crisis and Opportunity: Can the pandemic push technology forward?’
Live-streams - Multimedia
20 May 2020
This online event aimed to examine how the pandemic will affect the future of Education in Europe and beyond. Most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology and digitalisation came to the rescue of policymakers and teachers alike who had to develop plans for the continuation of education through alternate methods during the period of social isolation, with virtually all teaching taking place online.
Along with our distinguished speakers, we will discuss what steps can be taken to mitigate the educational impact of the pandemic and the role technology will continue to play in educating future generations. We will also try to answer whether Coronavirus-related disruption can give governments and educators time to rethink the sector.Anna Nalyvayko COVID-19 Education
Online Event ‘How Covid-19 Shapes the Future of Education’
Live-streams - Multimedia
14 May 2020
The month of May is the perfect time for political contemplation. There are many reasons to think deeper about Europe and our European future these days, particularly as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and 16 years since the reunification of Europe. Additionally, Europe is facing an unparalleled challenge in the post-war era – the COVID-19 pandemic.
If someone asked me these days how Europe is doing, I would have to say that it is divided once again. We somehow overcame the global financial and economic crisis. But the cracks have since only continued to deepen. We were unable to provide a uniform response to the migration crisis. We seem to have lost the ability to distinguish our allies from our opponents, or other potential threats. We are divided when assessing whether government actions are still democratic, or if they already belong to the apparatus of autocrats. We are divided when deciding if the EU enlargement process should continue or be halted. We are divided on the issue of whether the Istanbul Convention is an opportunity or a threat. We are divided on whether our economies, being bled dry by the pandemic, should be rescued by loans or grants, and whether the future European budget should give priority to cohesion and convergence over security and innovation. It has never been easy to reach a consensus within the EU, but the current level of dissonance makes me very concerned.
Whenever there was a problem, I asked myself if anything could be done about it. I asked a similar question recently when reading the interview with Irene Tinagli, Chairwoman of the EP’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. I learned from the interview that when in her native Italy you mention the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) as a tool to support economic recovery after the coronavirus crisis, “there is a lot of sensitivity”. The ESM is “seen as a traditional instrument, as a way to control economic and fiscal policies.”
In other words, I learned that indebted Italy does not want to take additional loans under the ESM and that the current Italian government instead wants grants. I can understand why a heavily indebted Italy does not want additional loans. But I do not understand why Italian leaders are hiding behind the sentiments of voters while enflaming such views. I do not understand how the leader of a European country can plead for grants, without presenting in advance, or simultaneously, a set of reforms that would change the country for the better.
Having said this, is there anything that can be done to deal with this serious internal European division? In my opinion, we must start playing fair with voters. Either political leaders opt to play fair, or the post-pandemic wave will sweep us away. Political leaders must have the courage to explain to people that cohesion does not mean everyone will enjoy the same income. That solidarity does not mean that people of responsibility will tolerate or promote moral hazard. That someone will have to foot the bill for the irresponsible decisions of politicians. Political leaders must tell EU citizens that the key to Europe’s future consists, first and foremost, of deep reforms implemented at the national level. Only then can the most indebted countries invoke greater solidarity and support from the others. The leaders of EU institutions, for their part, should not raise unrealistic expectations, but rather patiently explain that they can only exercise the competences entrusted to their administration by the member states.
I cannot keep myself from saying this: when we, the post-communist countries, were struggling to get back on our feet after the period of morass, there was no Marshall plan, and we had never heard a term such as ‘bail-out’. It had never even occurred to me, as the then-Prime Minister, to ask other countries for grants to make up for Communist mismanagement. We carried out painful reforms, privatised entire sectors in order to repay old debts and rescue the banks. To this day, ex-Communists reproach me for selling “Slovakia’s family silver”. But I can live with this kind of reproach. Yes, we recognised the value of financial instruments, such as the International Monetary Fund’s stand-by loans, or development investment loans from the World Bank or the European Investment Bank. However, what we always valued most was moral and political support from the West, and its vision of a reunited Europe.
There is no magic wand and the only way forward is together. There is no technical finesse that would us rid of old debts. Individual cunning or political threats are not a solution, either. There is only one thing that will determine our success, or failure – sound leadership by politicians, or their resignation in front of voters disoriented by their actions. Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi, their travel companions and their successors achieved a unique feat: uniting Europe and making it stand on its feet. Now is the time for its protection and further development.Mikuláš Dzurinda COVID-19 Crisis EU Institutions European Union Values
Beyond divisions, the only way forward is together
09 May 2020
One of the most pertinent questions posed during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak is whether technology can be successfully utilised to mitigate the spread of the virus or otherwise limit its impact on everyday life. This In Brief takes stock of the technological measures taken in several Asian countries as a reaction to the outbreak and examines the recent response of European Union member states. The text also maps out workable solutions and important future considerations on the digital front for the EU.COVID-19 Crisis European Union Innovation Technology
COVID-19 and Technology in the EU: Think Bigger than Apps
07 May 2020
Today’s episode with Benjamin Haddad, on topics related to COVID-19 and US politics, such as the Presidential Election this November.Roland Freudenstein Benjamin Haddad COVID-19 EU-US
The Week in 7 Questions with Benjamin Haddad
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
01 May 2020
Until now, every crisis, including COVID-19, has brought to light divergent perceptions of security challenges in the EU. It appears that some countries took the imposition of restrictions as an opportunity to centralise their power and suppress freedom of speech.
Already before the pandemic, the state of media independence and freedom was one of the major structural differences between western and central European democracies. Now, with the implementation of emergency powers, the situation might worsen; this is bad news for the entire Union. This trend is confirmed by the latest World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders’ annual index, which measures the level of media freedom.
Although media freedom is generally decreasing, this phenomenon is very uneven. While media in the West, especially in Scandinavia, are ranked as very independent with strong law enforcement to protect journalists from attacks, on the contrary, in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, the press is facing control by the government, hatred, and stigmatisation.
The desire to control the media
Notwithstanding the differences between different governments and their reactions to COVID-19, there are certain common traits in the Visegrad Group. First and foremost, their fragile democratic tradition, high levels of corruption, and desire to control and sometimes own the media market makes it easier for them to massage public opinion.
In the last two years, Slovakia earned unfortunate notoriety in the wake of the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée. In general, journalists in Slovakia have long been threatened and demeaned by government officials, while government-affiliated oligarchs entered the mainstream media market. In Czechia, 30% of commercial media are owned by Prime Minister Babiš. Although a very professional public television deserves respect, there is a genuine threat of control by the government, as it determines the composition of the television board. This fact, along with open hatred and verbal attacks by President Zeman towards the media, are causing critical journalists to leave the main outlets. According to the media freedom Index, Czechia dropped from the 18th to the 40th spot in the last five years.
Hungary is in an even worse situation. Public television is the mouthpiece of the government. As a reward for positively reporting on the government’s actions, and for slandering and criticising the opposition and civil society, it receives 100 billion forints (EUR 280 million) annually. The recently adopted legislation which empowered Prime Minister Orbán to rule by decree, purposely silenced parliamentary opposition. The media could substitute for the muzzled parliament, or rather the muzzled opposition. However, new legislation foresees penalties of up to 5 years in prison, especially for independent media, for “promoting false information in the context of the coronavirus”, which still leaves broad space for interpretation by the government. According to the Index, Hungary is ranked 89th. A worse situation exists only in Bulgaria, which ended up in 111th place.
In Poland, journalists can be sentenced to a year in prison for defamation, even though the civil code offers citizens all the protection they need if they are defamed. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has secured control over public service TV broadcasting, through the direct appointment of its chief officer by the government. The state-owned television network’s propaganda is boosting the confidence of Poles in their government’s ability to master not only the pandemic, but also the upcoming presidential elections, which is of vital importance for PiS. It brings reports on Western Europe’s problems and alleged inability to cope with the crisis. The fact that Polish healthcare workers are directly prohibited by the government to speak of the dire state of Polish hospitals, remains underreported.
Freedom of speech needs EU attention, support, and recognition
The fact that legislation and the attitude of politicians during the crisis make journalists’ existence and work even more difficult is attested by the many complaints sent as a letter to the Council of Europe but also by a letter to the Commission President.
The European Commission has financially strengthened the position of independent media, especially since the murders of journalists in Malta, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the MFF 2021-2027 preparations should not omit a further increase in funding for independent media, because through them, a conscious civil society can be built, resistant to propaganda and disinformation. Especially now, as many independent media will fight for survival and cannot rely on financial support from governments when it comes to the distribution of advertising from the state’s institutions.
The media also needs permanent attention from the Union´s institutions, as in their respective countries, they often cannot rely on a judiciary system which is in the hands of the government. This was the case for the murdered journalist in Slovakia, when a special mission by the European Parliament put pressure on the police and the prosecution, leading to an independent investigation.
The media are an integral part of democracy and irreplaceable a watchdog, which provides citizens with balanced information and pushes politicians towards transparency. Therefore, all measures to support them should be taken, as even in extraordinary times, certain lines should not be crossed. We cannot afford to take damage on all fronts, especially on the front of democracy, which is already facing many challenges. Someone has aptly compared the pandemic to driving at night with no lights on. We aim to make it to the finish line alive, with as few car scratches as possible.Viktória Jančošeková COVID-19 Eastern Europe
COVID-19 highlights the issue of a free press in the Visegrad 4
30 Apr 2020
Even during these difficult times of COVID-19, Brexit continues and our UK-based specialist Angelos Chryssogelos will give you the latest insights.Angelos Chryssogelos Brexit COVID-19
Brexitometer April 2020
Brexitometer - Multimedia
30 Apr 2020
The pandemic has created an unprecedented level of uncertainty, mainly because we do not know how long it will last. This affects the economic implications. Two facts are clear: there will be a recession and budget deficits will have to soar. This note draws some implications beyond the immediate health concerns. In many ways, they challenge the architecture of the Eurozone. Either the architecture will change or the Eurozone as we know it will cease to exist. During the sovereign debt crisis from 2010 to 2015, the architecture was changed just as the Eurozone was on the verge of losing one or more members, with unmeasurable consequences. Will history repeat itself?COVID-19 Crisis Economy EU Institutions Eurozone
Looking Beyond Coronabonds: What COVID-19 Means for the Future of the Eurozone
30 Apr 2020
Devastated by years of conflict, economic collapse and multiple humanitarian crises, the omnipresent coronavirus could wreak unprecedented havoc on the already-fragile geopolitical situation in the Middle East. On the other hand, the virus presents a unique opportunity for cooperation, particularly with Iran – the epicentre of the virus in the region – and could also provide the EU and other international actors with an opportunity to reconvene dialogue and peace negotiations.
The Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies invites you to a webinar where we will discuss the implications of COVID-19 for the Middle East, which could ultimately prove to be a watershed moment for the region and all interested parties.Roland Freudenstein Michael Benhamou COVID-19 Middle East
Online Event ‘The Geopolitical Impact of Covid-19 on the Middle East’
Live-streams - Multimedia
29 Apr 2020
During the last decade or so, the European Union has been spared little in the way of dramatic crises: the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, the largest refugees’ inflow since the massive population transfers that concluded WWII, and now the deadliest epidemic in over a century. In conjunction with each of them, a reasonable case could be made, and has been made, that the best solution was a ‘federal’ EU state responsible for, respectively, fiscal and economic policy, migration policy, and now health policy.COVID-19 Crisis EU Institutions EU Member States Resources
Does the EU have sufficient healthcare competences to cope with COVID-19?
28 Apr 2020
Russia’s situation regarding Covid-19 does not look good, by any definition. According to Worldometers, the country is currently ranked #2 by new cases (being surpassed only by the United States) and #7 by active cases. That said, one should bear in mind the extremely low reliability of Russian testing data. First, there are numerous recorded cases of people who fell ill with Covid-19 symptoms, receive negative test results, and are then tested repeatedly, and only after several tests do the results turn to be positive. The most outrageous cases include posthumous positive tests for people who died from coronavirus after having tested negative while they were still alive. Second, Russia only tests people who have returned from abroad, have clear symptoms or have contacted coronavirus-positive patients, while private testing of a broader (unlimited) range of people suggests that the number of infected is much higher than the official figures. Third, there are constant limitations with testing capacity – although Russia claims to have reached 150,000 tests per day, at times it is unable to operate at full capacity. Just recently, Moscow – the best-equipped region in the country – has reported a 25% drop in daily testing, due to a lack of auxiliary material (pipettes). Fourth, most tests are done in Moscow, and we don’t even know what the real picture is in the Russian regions.
Russian coronavirus mortality rates are relatively low (within the 1% range), but one should be warned against trusting them, due to multiple reports of corona-suspicious deaths being reclassified as ‘the flu’ or other diseases. I would advise against speculation on that topic until we are able to see the official mortality statistics for March-April by cause of death, which will allow us to track clear numerical anomalies.
In short, Russia is paying a heavy price for the authorities’ indecisiveness in introducing quarantine measures, the ambiguous nature of those measures, a poorly equipped health care system, and the extremely ineffective implementation of already introduced restrictions. For instance, the Russian web is flooded with videos of long lines, with thousands of people standing together – without any social distancing whatsoever – just to be checked by police for electronic passes before boarding subway trains. Or similarly, massive lines of people waiting to receive physical passes in regions where authorities didn’t really go digital in their restrictive measures. Or huge crowds of workers at factories, who are brought together after a working day for ‘sanitising’ measures. Ineffective bureaucracy doubles down on already severe infection risks. Russian hospitals are totally unequipped to handle Covid-19 patients in all regards – many reports on this from across the country can also be found on the web.
More serious are the economic motives for people to disobey quarantine rules. Vladimir Putin has declared five ‘non-working weeks’ until the end of April, but has never introduced any formal emergency, nor has he provided entrepreneurs with any compensation for this massive ‘paid leave’. According to a poll by the Center for Strategic Research, 30% of Russian employers have directly disobeyed Putin’s order and forced people to work; most of the others offered either reduced or no pay, or began firing people. A Higher School of Economics poll suggests that, as early as the beginning of April, 70% of Russians already felt declining incomes, of which 24% reported ‘total loss’ of income. The Government has been systemically refusing to provide meaningful and direct aid to ordinary citizens and SMEs – they have only pledged limited measures, about 70% of which are exemptions from payments due much later, and the remaining assistance is very hard to obtain due to administrative barriers.
In this situation, Russians are literally forced to get back to work as soon as possible – and two-thirds of the Russian regions have begun to partially reopen businesses and ease restrictions as early as the first days of April. This may have a catastrophic effect on the further spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Russia. The latest news (April 23rd) is that Moscow has recorded a new spike in Covid-19 cases, by almost 30% in just four days.
It looks like Putin’s ineffective system of governance is taking a major toll on Russians in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, such as the one we are facing now. Political implications for Putin will be enormous: Russia is already tired of almost thirteen years of slacking economic growth, and six years of decline and stagnation of real incomes. Putin’s popularity was already worn out when Russia entered this crisis – now many people in the country are appalled by Putin’s lack of decisiveness and unwillingness to aid people and a collapsing economy. Consequences will inevitably follow.Vladimir Milov COVID-19 EU-Russia
Russia’s Covid-19 Time of Reckoning
27 Apr 2020
Watch here the 7 answers that Lidia Pereira gives to our host Roland Freudenstein on topics such as the new way of work of the MEPs, changing traveling to books, Digital Technology, or China, among others.Roland Freudenstein China COVID-19 European People's Party Technology
The Week In 7 Questions with Lídia Pereira
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
24 Apr 2020
Disinformation and misinformation around COVID-19 continue to proliferate around the world, with potentially harmful consequences for public health and effective crisis communication. In the EU and elsewhere, coordinated disinformation messaging seeks to frame vulnerable minorities as the cause of the pandemic and to fuel distrust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver effective responses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said false claims “are spreading faster than the virus” and has already termed it an “infodemic of planetary proportions”. How can we beat misinformation? How to recognise disinformation and help stop it from spreading? What is the EU doing about it? Join our online debate to find out answers to those questions.Anna van Oeveren China COVID-19 EU-Russia
Online Event ‘Can the EU gear up against Covid-19 disinformation?’
Live-streams - Multimedia
23 Apr 2020
The current emergency might be the most challenging test for the EU. COVID-19 has huge implications, not only from a social, economic and healthcare perspective, it is also questioning the role of the European Union and its relationship with its citizens. This is particularly evident in Italy, the worst-affected country in the bloc, where the crisis is exacerbating an already widespread disaffection towards the EU. This loss of enthusiasm started more than a decade ago. Italy, as a founding member state, has typically enjoyed high levels of support for the European project. However recently, the negative impact of the economic crisis, and later the mismanagement of the migratory challenge, have negatively affected the sentiment towards Europe.
As a consequence, in Italy, since 2010, trust in the EU has decreased by about 20 points. Europe has failed to demonstrate real solidarity, and at the same time has been used as a scapegoat for the country’s weaknesses. The 2019 Eurobarometer showed evidence of growing Euroscepticism: Italy emerged as the most pessimistic among EU member states, with less than half of Italians thinking that their country benefits from the EU (42%, 26 points below the EU average). Moreover, only 38% of Italians thought that Italy’s voice counts in Europe, this time 18 points below the EU average. Italian citizens have felt shamefully neglected by the EU, and they expressed this frustration at the most recent European elections, bringing victory to the Lega party, which has never spared criticism and hostility towards the EU. This has been interpreted as a desire to obtain responses and a request for change at the EU level, rather than a deeper identity or belonging issue against Europe. However, it was certainly a clear reaction, and a signal of a troubled relationship.
This loss of confidence in the EU has also partially affected the more fervent pro-Europeans.
As Italy is now facing a severe crisis, with more than 23.000 deaths from coronavirus, and its already weak economy is terribly at risk of a deep recession, there is a rising feeling that the country is being abandoned by its European brothers. The Union’s response to this emergency has been perceived as late and inadequate, and the expectations of a rapid demonstration of solidarity and support from the rest of the EU were not met. COVID-19, therefore, becomes another occasion to test the EU and to blame it for not doing enough. Even if the EU has subsequently made up for this, launching significant initiatives to deal with the emergency, its hesitation at the onset of the pandemic, the attitude of some member states, and the ongoing arm-wrestle the Italian government finds itself in on the use of the ESM and Coronabonds are leaving their mark.
According to a few surveys conducted in recent weeks in Italy, 67% of Italians believe that being part of the EU is a disadvantage, up from 47% in November 2018. 77% of respondents believe that, at the moment, the EU has not contributed to face the current health crisis. The decrease of people who claim to feel European should not be a surprise, from 66% before the pandemic to 49% today. This loss of confidence in the EU has also partially affected the more fervent pro-Europeans. However, a considerable minority, 35%, would vote to exit the EU. Although this is clearly an expression of the current frustration and fear for the future, it is still a striking assessment of the loss of confidence that has happened in the past few weeks, and its reflection on a generally pessimistic view on the uncertain future of jobs and the economy.
Public debates and social media are contributing to damaging faith in the EU, spreading criticism of the European model, and not sufficiently highlighting what the EU is actually doing. Misinformation and political instrumentalisation are also part of this game, with the risk of rising the popularity of nationalist and sovereigntist forces. If the EU is not perceived as a safe bet, Italians will start considering other potential alliances. Indeed, according to a recent poll, Italians consider China, probably as an effect of the aid they supplied to face the health emergency, as the friendliest country, followed by Russia and the US. Germany, however, stands among Italy’s biggest enemies, reflecting the current negotiations at EU level, which are exacerbating divergences and frictions among EU countries.
Restoring Italians’ faith in the EU will not be a simple task at this point, but it’s not too late.
The decline of trust in the EU is a clear countertrend with the support for national institutions. Italians expressed their agreement on the measures adopted at the national level to face the emergency; 75% appreciate President Mattarella; 58% expressed their confidence in Prime Minister Conte, up a good 15 points compared to the beginning of the year. A favourable opinion is also addressed towards the politicians at the local level. What has generated a more significant frustration towards the EU is the feeling of a lack of empathy and a confusing and uncoordinated communication, symbolised by the strong reaction to the frigidness of the Dutch Finance Minister’s words and the President of the European Central Bank’s message. Last month, in one of his few TV appearances addressing millions of Italians, even Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s Head of State, warned the future of Europe was at stake if its institutions did not show solidarity with their country.
The massive shift happening in Italy has not gone unnoticed. The Financial Times published an article a few days ago entitled “Is Europe losing Italy?”, highlighting how Italians’ sense of betrayal deepens as their plight remains ignored. Numerous calls for European unity and solidarity have spread, and some prominent politicians have expressed the need for collective action. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen officially apologised to Italy on behalf of Europe for its failure to do more to help at the onset of the pandemic. Restoring Italians’ faith in the EU will not be a simple task at this point, but it’s not too late. Reacting to a global pandemic solely with national measures is not possible, nor rationally desirable. It is time for the EU to show that it can live up to expectations and ambitions. Besides technical decisions, it is also important to convey a clear reassuring message as a united and responsive Europe. The ball is now in the hands of the Heads of States and Governments, gathering in the upcoming European Council. The EU cannot afford to miss this crucial opportunity to prove that its institutions are close to its citizens and can protect them, deliver concrete answers, and spread the right messages. What will be decided in the next few weeks is crucial for the future of the EU, but also for its relations with its citizens, starting in one of its founding members.Loredana Teodorescu COVID-19 Euroscepticism
Italy calling the EU as Euroscepticism rises in times of Coronavirus
21 Apr 2020
In some years, I will probably see the current period of COVID-19 outbreak as an era, which has changed nearly everything. From the patterns of my work (very productive online cooperation, which, however, may give some employers additional tools for surveillance) to social life (offline limitations and online chances). From education (the new architecture of my remote classes with students, which requires the proper quality of the network), to the new schemes of digital cultural participation. Think of the excellent online performances enjoyed by all of us, such as the concert of Andrea Bocelli from the empty cathedral in Milano.
Paradoxically, this completely unpredictable disease has become the global game-changer, influencing both the current times and the future. The COVID-19 experience clearly shows what was, and is, most important: a substantial increase in the significance of digital opportunities. The new, post-Corona world will become more digital than we could ever have imagined.
One part of me is afraid of this digital breakthrough. The other is full of hope.
Firstly, use the data efficiently and adequately!
Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can predict the trajectories of COVID-19’s dissemination (through modelling) and prepare warning policies, including for the second and possible third wave of the outbreak.
These predictions depend on the massive delivery of the data needed. How to collect it? As it was done one month ago by Deutsche Telecom, without the possibility of identifying individuals (the data was provided to the Robert Koch Institute in aggregated form). We can also follow the experiment of South Korea with the possibility of identifying individuals, legally introduced to know more about human contacts (tracing): the new algorithmic solution with full automation of all processes reduced contact-tracing time from 24 hours to 10 minutes.
The special apps and data will be a crucial instrument for health crisis management, or rather the e-management of the health crisis.
Such applications should be voluntary (but 60% of participation is needed for efficiency) for us, citizens, as the European Commission suggests; they should also be based on privacy protection (proportionate and targeted use) with a growing awareness of the need for consent given by an individual. Clearly, these apps should use anonymised data. Additionally, they could use the decentralised model of collecting data by Bluetooth instruments, which is currently offered by Google and Apple. Of course, it should be known what kind of data retention rules ought to be implemented, for what period of time, and how to include the terms of the “sunset clause” into some solutions. In some cases, we need to consider how to make legitimate use of the GDPR. In all cases, we should check what the impact of those digital tools on civil rights is. This is the only way to avoid tensions and redundant controversies.
All those principles must function as a European approach, with a full agreement between the European Commission, the Member States, and the European Data Protection Supervisor.
Secondly, be connected!
The question is whether the parameters of connectivity are sufficient. The current experience shows deficits and the necessity for improvement. For example, the lack of accessibility to the Internet in rural areas (it turns out this is a major issue in the US). On a global level, there is a deficit of the possibilities to use networks in developing countries (low level of quality and access). And this is to say nothing of the enormous lack of digital literacy among many groups, especially elderly people. Additionally, we see a lack of full semantic interoperability of operational systems or software in Europe, which hinders cooperation in many areas, including in healthcare, which is now proving crucial.
Digital opportunities revealed, at the same time, the growing threat of the digital divide. Hence, we need to accelerate the works on 5G implementation, fully taking into account the challenge of cybersecurity and the need to build a European system of certificates and skills for risk analysis and management. My view is clear, and often in contradiction to those of experts and governments. We should not postpone these works.
Thirdly, build trust!
Trust is essential for two reasons: cybersecurity and privacy. The more digital we are, the more threats we face.
On the cybersecurity front, we are seeing a new context. The massive scale of mobile devices and communication channels used is already provoking cybercrime organisations to expand their activities. These actors range from mafia groups to the completely out of control Darknet, to some states conducting digital industrial espionage or disinformation campaigns. There are many reports demonstrating Chinese and Russian involvement in disinformation measures. There are also many instances of new forms of digital espionage and hacking activities.
Necessary resilience should be guaranteed by the proper institutions, such as ENISA, Europol, as well as the member states and tech companies, but also by all of us, ready to use the “cyber hygiene” tools. The key challenge is to convince citizens in all member states that data is like the air (not only like oil): we need it to be able to breathe and to function.
Also, the significance of artificial intelligence is undeniable. It is high time to discuss the European Strategy on AI (White Paper), and clearly and publicly show why we need AI and how it should be governed (by law and by oversight, with what kind of partners, based on ethical norms and standards). We must also avoid mistakes by creating potential discriminatory schemes.
This is the opportunity to make a giant leap, combining new digital tools and AI, and changing the paradigm of the healthcare model. We need to speed up clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine, work on biotechnologies useful for new medicines, have better diagnostic instruments, as well as personalised recognition and therapies.
Sitting at home, seeing the coming of spring outside the window, I cannot stop thinking about the growing digital opportunities during the outbreak. The conclusion is simple: we must seize these opportunities. This is the digital game-changer momentum.Michał Boni COVID-19 Technology
COVID-19 and the digital game-changer momentum
20 Apr 2020
The current COVID-19 pandemic will change the world, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 terror attacks. For the foreseeable future, EU governments will be preoccupied with dealing with the pandemic’s immediate socio-economic consequences. However, other policy areas will be affected as well. With regard to the EU’s security and defence policy, COVID-19 is likely to extinguish the unprecedented dynamism that has characterised its development since 2016. Its most immediate impact is likely to be decreased funding for several new initiatives such as the European Defence Fund. The pandemic is also likely to reduce the EU’s readiness to address crises in its neighbourhood and may hasten the Union’s relative decline as a global power if its recovery is slow and wrought by prolonged disputes between the member states over the appropriate economic response to the crisis. Yet, the EU should not completely abandon its pre-COVID-19 security and defence agenda. Both during and after the pandemic, the Union will continue to face familiar challenges such as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and instability in its neighbourhood.COVID-19 Crisis Defence Security
The EU’s Security and Defence Policy: The Impact of the Coronavirus
20 Apr 2020
Watch Jan Techau answering 7 questions about Germany, Angela Merkel, France, the EU, UK, Russia, China, COVID-10, and even Super Heroes!Roland Freudenstein Brexit China COVID-19 EU Member States EU-Russia
The Week In 7 Questions with Jan Techau
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
17 Apr 2020
This online event aimed to look at how the pandemic is changing the relationship between governmental authorities and citizens in Europe and beyond. Governments all over the planet are adopting intrusive and restrictive measures, including the use of advanced technologies to track and control their population. They are encountering little resistance and even a fair degree of social consensus in the process. The example of ruthlessly effective authoritarian regimes such as China risks becoming more alluring and increasing divides within the EU.
As often in the past, a potential trade-off between national health and security on the one hand, and civic and individual freedoms on the other hand is becoming evident. Does this pandemic herald far-reaching changes in the nature of our political systems? Will it result in permanent restrictions of some individual and civic freedoms and encourage more invasive forms of governmental control? How should we assess developments so far and how will our social contract look like in the post-pandemic era?Angelos Chryssogelos Christian Democracy COVID-19 Democracy
Online Event ‘COVID-19 and the Future of Liberal Democracy’
Live-streams - Multimedia
16 Apr 2020
We are happy to present our new weekly video series, each week with a different guest. Today, we’re honoured to have Daniel Schwammenthal answering the 7 Questions of the Week.Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 Economy Middle East
The Week In 7 Questions with Daniel Schwammenthal
Multimedia - The Week in 7 Questions
10 Apr 2020
Governments across Europe are implementing border closures, travel restrictions, and heightened screening at their borders. How useful are these measures in countering the spread of the Coronavirus?
Rainer Münz, Migration and Demography expert, formerly working at the In-House Think Tank of the European Commission (2015-2020):
“All these measures are definitely useful in reducing the risk of COVID-19 contagion, as is the case with any other epidemics. It is clear that infected business and leisure travellers have brought the virus from China to Europe and North America. The same is true inside Europe. Many people got infected after coming back from trips to Italy, western Austria, and a few other ‘hotspots’. Such closures even make sense within countries.”
Jean-Louis De Brouwer, Director of Justice and Home Affairs, Social Policies and Sustainable Development, Egmont (Royal Institute for International Affairs):
“Some have expressed the view that a mere closure which is not complemented by a strong programme of testing and tracking would be useless. Others have stressed that it was all the more senseless, as these decisions were often taken at a time when the virus was already inside the country. Not being an epidemiologist, I will refrain from engaging in this debate. But I would support the views expressed by Migration Policy Institute experts in a recent policy brief: while stressing that COVID-19 was not a migration problem, they acknowledged that “closing borders to non-essential travel might be a logical extension of asking people to stay home.”
Carlos Coelho, Founder of the Schengen Observatory, former MEP:
“A general or targeted ban on travelling would help contain the spread of the virus. In contrast, the reintroduction of internal border controls is not necessarily useful in containing the spread of COVID-19. Why? Their implementation – particularly along land borders – is hardly possible: 1. The member states do not have enough human resources to conduct effective controls. 2. Controlling the green parts of the borders (outside the official border crossing points) is impossible. 3. A traveller might not show the symptoms and already carry the virus. Thus, the imposition of quarantines to travellers would be an effective measure. In addition, there are side effects to these controls, clearly affecting the free movement of goods overland. This is particularly worrisome for medical equipment and supplies, pharmaceutical products but also perishable goods such as vegetables and fruit.”
It seems that only some member governments of the Schengen Area notified the European Commission of the impending reintroductions of border checks. Is this a problem?
Münz: “Governments are working in an emergency mode. It might be that not all procedures foreseen by the Schengen regulations have been followed, but the Commission does not seem to have major objections (for now) as long as the flow of goods is ensured. We also should not forget that earlier border controls imposed by countries such as Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France as a reaction to the inflow of refugees and irregular migrants in 2016 had still been in place when current measures were taken.”
De Brouwer: “Yes, absolutely. Controlling access to its territory might be deemed as a fundamental prerogative of a Westphalian sovereign state. However, adherence to the Schengen Area of free circulation means accepting new rules and adopting new behaviours building upon transparency and mutual trust and translating these into permanent coordination. That is why the Commission rightly reacted by presenting its generally welcome ‘Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services’ on 16 March 2020. As the reintroduction of border controls and travel restrictions are indeed compatible with the Schengen ‘acquis’ under certain conditions, it was essential to implement them in a coordinated way while preserving the internal market.”
Coelho: “Not necessarily. Border check notifications are lodged for three main reasons: 1. Guaranteeing publicity and transparency. 2. Allowing ex-post verification on proportionality and the necessity of national border controls by the European Commission (complemented by a report of the member states once the controls end). 3. Ensuring and encouraging coordination between the member state imposing the controls and those member states that are affected. Whereas the present controls are widely publicised, and the current situation falls within the circumstances foreseen by the Schengen Borders Code, it is not so clear that coordination has occurred. Not notifying the Commission might thus indicate a bigger problem: a lack of coordination between member states. Polish controls and their effect on the citizens of the Baltic countries serve as an important example. On the other hand, it will be essential to see whether or not the national controls produced the results desired and if they were effectively implemented. Notifications would provide relevant information to the Commission for this assessment.”
On 16 March, all Schengen Area member states approved the European Commission’s proposal to impose a 30-day restriction on non-essential travel to the EU, thus creating a Schengen Area ‘security perimeter’. What are the chances that this measure will lead to the easing of border checks inside the Schengen Area?
Münz: “The issue is not so much ‘checks’, but the denial of access. This is an additional measure attempting to reduce contagion, and it will not affect travel restrictions. Both measures will – sooner or later – be lifted hand-in-hand.”
De Brouwer: “This is the bet of the Commission, which, in its communication of 16 March states that ‘such a measure would also enable the lifting of internal control measures.’ However, the joint statement adopted by the members of the European Council on 26 March reflects a somewhat different understanding: heads of state and governments commit to ensuring smooth border management where temporary internal controls have been introduced, without actually questioning them. On a related subject, one should also bear in mind the negative consequences such restrictions could have on the respect of international protection obligations. Although the Commission explicitly stresses that such a measure should not apply to persons in need of international protection, or for other humanitarian reasons, the situations at the borders between Greece and Turkey or between Croatia and Bosnia deserve our utmost attention. By the way, this issue is not unique to Europe; it also arises between the US and Mexico.”
Coelho: “None. Recent experience shows – notably with the so-called refugee crisis – that reinforcement of the protection of our external borders has not resulted in the lifting of the internal controls. Nor has it led to a change in the political debate. Moreover, even though this pandemic is provoking symmetrical effects across the union, the spread of the virus varies across the EU.”COVID-19 Crisis EU Member States European Union
What are the effects of the national border closures on containing the COVID-19 infection?
08 Apr 2020
What does the Coronavirus mean for the EU as an international actor?
Jamie Shea, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:
“The crisis is still far from over, and this gives the EU time and opportunity to re-assert its relevance. Its institutions and their leaders should focus on clear objectives and persuade EU national leaders and their bureaucracies, currently beleaguered by COVID-19 pandemic management and lockdowns, to join this effort now.
The first objective concerns recovery. The severe economic contraction in the industrialised countries could tip the global economy into a prolonged depression. So, the primary role for the EU is to lead the G7 and G20 together with the international financial institutions to come up with a coordinated global strategy to restart the global economy as soon as the virus subsides. The EU can best engage China in this effort in a way that the US finds increasingly difficult. China is where the virus originated, and it is the first major economic powerhouse to recover and restart production. So, it has a particular responsibility to help the rest of the world. The EU will need to persuade China to re-capitalise the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and fully open the Chinese market to foreign goods and services.
A second priority is to help Africa. African countries mostly lack the sanitary conditions, health infrastructure, and the possibility to self-isolate that richer countries enjoy. Yet if the pandemic is not contained in Africa with its rapidly rising population and exposure to climate change, migration flows, and jihadist extremism, the EU will have an even bigger security headache to deal with. COVID-19 would mutate and quickly spread back to Europe. So now is the time for the EU to develop a true health Marshall Plan for Africa and work with the World Health Organization (WHO), the African Union and the financial institutions and development agencies to elaborate an effective strategy before the pandemic runs into the millions and, like AIDS 20 years ago, brings entire African societies to the brink of collapse.
Finally, this pandemic will not be the last. The crisis has revealed multiple weaknesses in the global health management system from delays in sharing vital information, contradictory messaging and the spreading of fake news and disinformation, to uncoordinated responses and a lack of testing kits, respirators, and protective clothing. If the early stages of managing COVID-19 have been primarily national, emerging from it smoothly will need credible, authoritative guidance coming from international institutions. The EU should, therefore, lead an international ‘lessons learned’ exercise and push its conclusions robustly in the G7, G20, and UN bodies as well as regional organisations to ensure that the global community is better equipped to act early next time around. We need to mobilise more resources to lock down the pathogens before they spread beyond the point of origin. The EU can lead the way, first and foremost, by coordinating the crisis exit activities of its own 27 member states. It will then be in a stronger position to mobilise the rest of the world behind a better strategy for prevention.”
Giselle Bosse, Research Associate, Martens Centre:
“The picture of the EU as a failing, dysfunctional international actor in the COVID-19 crisis is misleading, at least up until now. The EU has minimal powers in the area of health, it can make recommendations, but member states are free to ignore them. And where it could, in areas of its legal competence, the Commission has already taken actions, for example, measures with regards to the lifting of export restrictions on medical equipment imposed by individual member states, or guidelines on borders to ensure the free movement of goods. The real challenge for the EU, the economic response to the crisis, is only just unfolding. This is an area in which the EU has significant competencies and instruments. Finding an agreement on financial rescue measures is not only crucial for the EU’s ability to offset the devastating economic consequences of COVID-19 and safeguard its standing as a major world trading power. Agreement on a joint economic response is also vital for trust and solidarity among the EU’s member states, which in turn is a precondition for a common EU foreign policy, including ongoing and future attempts to strengthen the EU’s autonomous security and defence capabilities.
Moreover, while much focus is (rightly) placed on containing COVID-19, saving lives and economic rescue, Human Rights Watch, among others, reminded the EU that ‘governments should avoid sweeping and overly broad restrictions on movement and personal liberty’ and cautioned against governments requesting movement data from mobile providers, which violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). To make things worse, on 30 March, Hungary passed a law that gives sweeping new powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree, for an unlimited period of time. The manner in which the EU and its member states will handle human rights and democratic principles in the current crisis will send important signals internationally, and will very likely have implications for its credibility and legitimacy as a normative power.
In conclusion, much of the current criticism and depiction of the EU as a dysfunctional international actor in the COVID-19 crisis has been exaggerated, and often exploited for (geo-)political purposes. The current crisis will neither lead to the decline of the EU ‘as we know it’, nor will it fundamentally change global order or the EU’s geopolitical problems. However, the EU’s response to the crisis will send important signals beyond Europe, which can have significant implications for the credibility of the EU as an international actor. Such signals range from the EU’s commitment to multilateral trade (versus the EU’s ‘protectionist turn’) to its commitment to human rights and democracy (versus the toleration of illiberal governments and policies within the EU), its commitment to fighting climate change (versus calls to delay the Green Deal in times of economic crisis) and, above all, the member states’ commitment to social solidarity (versus national economic self-interest). How COVID-19 impacts the EU’s credibility as an international actor is (still) pretty much in its own hands.”
Jolyon Howorth, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:
“The pandemic is global; the response has been national/regional. The EU’s reputation for normative or soft power has been battered. The Union abandoned multilateral solidarity, even in the area (the welfare state) where it claimed superiority over other regimes. The EU, as an ‘actor’, has evaporated; member states closed borders and hoarded vital medical resources.
The crisis over finances replicated the Eurozone crisis, featuring a bitter internal struggle over the mutualisation of debt. Christine Lagarde initially declared it was ‘not the ECB’s responsibility’ to worry about German-Italian bond spreads. The refusal of the North to respond to Southern pleas for ‘Coronabonds’ poses an existential threat to the Union itself.
The crisis has demonstrated Asian efficiency and Western fumbling, highlighted by Trumpian denial. Transatlantic relations are in limbo. Logically, this should prompt a clear shift of EU strategy towards collective sovereignty and autonomy – faced with Beijing as a potential hegemon and Washington as a false friend. Yet, as a result of the crisis, the Union is uniquely ill-placed to pursue that path.
COVID-19 suggests the need for a total re-think of the balance of spending on defence and health. The ‘invisible enemy’ has demonstrated an exponentially greater need for protection against nature than against neighbours. The climate crisis awaits its turn on the stage.
The kaleidoscope has been shaken, and the pieces will take years to settle. Muddling through is henceforth akin to a death wish.”
Constantine Arvanitopoulos, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:
Europe is overwhelmed by a pandemic crisis of almost biblical proportions.
As countries are scrambling to deal with the immediate requirements of a colossal health emergency, an even greater threat looms on the horizon. Economists are warning us of the threat of an economic depression more significant than that of 1929.
Our response to the health crisis was not the best moment of European solidarity. We will always be haunted by the images of the military lorries carrying the dead of the city of Bergamo and European member states looking to China for health aid and equipment.
This pandemic now threatens to infect the European «body politic». In political philosophy’s great tradition, the analogy between disease and civil disorder was proposed to encourage rulers to show foresight (Machiavelli) and reason (Hobbes), to prevent fatal disorder.
In this tradition, the tragic loss of life should mobilise European leadership to prevent the recession from turning into a prolonged depression. As Mario Draghi wrote, unforeseen circumstances require a change of mindset, or as Keynes had put it, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. This is a war, and wars are financed by public debt. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will be devastating. Those in Europe that do not succumb to reason and adapt to change will have no one to blame but themselves.”
Niklas Nováky, Research Officer, Martens Centre:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Europe hard. Its immediate consequences will be economic and social in character. National governments across Europe will have to adopt unprecedented stimulus packages, adjust their existing budgets, and increase their national debt to protect their populations and economies from the pandemic and its eventual fallout. Yet, the pandemic will impact other policy areas as well.
With regard to the EU’s security and defence policy, COVID-19 is likely to make the Union increasingly inward-looking for the foreseeable future. As during the global economic and the eurozone debt crises, political willingness in the EU to address various crises in the Union’s neighbourhood is likely to decrease, for example. European crisis management activities won’t cease entirely, of course, as demonstrated by the EU’s recent decision to launch Operation IRINI to monitor the UN arms embargo in Libya. Still, it will become harder to convince EU governments to contribute to various existing and potential new operations, especially if those operations don’t serve their direct national interests.
The level of ambition of some of the new defence initiatives that the EU has launched since 2016 is also likely to be downscaled. The initiatives in the most immediate danger are the European Defence Fund, the European Peace Facility, and military mobility as their funding levels haven’t yet been agreed upon for the 2021-2027 financial period. Even before COVID-19, several member states expressed unwillingness to finance these initiatives at the levels proposed by the European Commission. COVID-19 will increase the number of such countries, and it is conceivable that some of the initiatives might not receive any funding at all. After all, in one technical compromise proposal made during the February European Council, the budget for military mobility was slashed completely. If this happens, it will be a severe setback to the European Commission’s ambition to be geopolitical.”COVID-19 Crisis European Union Foreign Policy
What does the Coronavirus mean for the EU as an international actor?
08 Apr 2020
The COVID-19 outbreak, and its deep financial aftermath, will put the European Union under unprecedented stress over the next five years or more. Brexit will add to these tensions for some members, notably Ireland. It is a matter of vital national interest for Ireland, that the EU gets its response to the crisis right, and does not allow it to create dangerous social distancing between the states of the EU.
The existing structure of the EU is unfitted to a crisis like this. The public expects the EU to act, but has not been given the EU the powers it needs to do so. Unlike the states of the EU, the EU itself has no capacity to borrow money, and no capacity to raise taxation. So it often lacks the financial clout to take decisive action. The amount it is allowed to spend is a mere 1% of GDP, whereas EU member states can and do spend around 40% of their GDP.
The countries and regions that gain most from the EU Single Market, are either unaware of the gains, or mistakenly think it is all due to their own efforts. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that the big objectors to Eurobonds (Germany, Austria and the Netherlands) gain almost three times as much per capita from the EU Single Market as do the assumed beneficiaries of the Eurobonds, Spain and Italy!
If the Single Market were to fail, the objectors would lose the most. But their national politicians fail to tell them this. Incidentally, the study showed Ireland to be a big gainer from the Single Market.
Meanwhile, the countries and regions that gain comparatively less from the Single Market resent this, and fail to acknowledge that they too are gaining from being in the EU Single Market, albeit a bit less than the others are gaining. Envy blinds some to reality.
Of course, these contradictory feelings are rarely expressed publicly, but they are there under the surface, ready to emerge when a crisis happens and decisions have to be made quickly.
COVID-19 has been such a crisis.
The restrictions on economic activity, as well as the direct health and income support costs, arising from COVID-19 will dramatically increase the debts of all states in the EU. At the same time, the initial reactions in some member states – from Germany blocking sales of vital equipment to Austria closing its border – have left bitter feelings in Southern member states, especially Italy.
Assuming a 20% drop in GDP as a result of COVID-19, an economist in the Bruegel Institute in Brussels has estimated that the Debt/GDP ratio of Italy could rise from 136% of GDP to 189%, that of France from 99% to 147%, that of Spain from 97% to 139%, and that of Germany from 59% to 94%.
As all these countries can expect their workforces to decrease in the next 20 years, because of past low birth rates, this is a very troubling prospect. A way needs to be found to spread the debt as widely as possible and as far as possible into the future.
The EU faces an unprecedented situation which justifies unprecedented actions.
One of the proposals made to do this is Eurobonds/Coronabonds which would enable countries to borrow with a guarantee from all eurozone states. The interest rate might be lower but it is still just another form of borrowing. If Italy issued a Eurobond, it would still be increasing its overall debt, and might face a higher interest rate on its ordinary bond issues. Another objection is that it might take 18 months or more to get these Eurobonds up and running, and the markets need something quicker.
Another proposal, favoured by some Northern member states, is that distressed countries borrow from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Some believe that the ESM is too small for all that needs to be done. Others worry about the conditions that might be imposed.
Meanwhile, the European Central Bank (ECB) continues to buy the bonds of member states. For example, it owns 26% of all German government bonds and 22% of all Spain’s bonds. This bond buying by the ECB enables governments to continue borrowing, but its support is confined to members who are in the euro. It is using monetary policy to achieve the goals of fiscal policy, which is controversial.
I suggest that a better solution would be to allow the European Union itself to borrow, up to a limit of (say) 0.5% of the EU GDP, to spend exclusively on COVID-19 related expenditures.
Article 122 of the Treaty already makes provision for the EU to give aid to help states suffering from “natural disasters and exceptional occurrences” beyond the control of a member state or states. COVID-19 meets this criterion.
But the EU is not using this power, because its budget is fully committed to other things. It has no room to respond to sudden emergencies. It would have such room if it was allowed to borrow. This power could then be activated to allow direct transfers of funds to a state in acute distress because of COVID-19 or the like, without adding to the recipient state’s debt.
Doing this would require an amendment to Article 310 (1) of the Treaty. This article presently requires the EU always to run a balanced budget. This could be amended to allow borrowing that was confined to spending on matters, like COVID-19, that had arisen suddenly and were beyond the control of the state looking for help. Such a limited borrowing authority would command a lot of support from the electorate.
It would also be borrowing under the democratic control by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament, something that does not apply to bond buying by the ECB.
The EU faces an unprecedented situation which justifies unprecedented actions.John Bruton Brexit COVID-19 Crisis Economy EU Institutions EU Member States
Increasing our firepower: Where can the EU find the ammunition to fight a Coronavirus induced economic slump?
07 Apr 2020
The Coronavirus epidemic is spreading quickly through the planet. Its full impact on societies, on our economies, and simply on people’s lives is still unknown. Nevertheless, chances are that the economic impact of the epidemic alone will be greater than any crisis since the end of the Second World War.
But contrary to an earthquake or a massive tropical storm, the current crisis was not a surprise, nor was it unpredictable. In fact, the risks associated with wild animal markets and their link to potential virus outbreaks were widely studied and debated, including in China, after SARS – the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002-3, caused by a very similar coronavirus to the one which recently appeared in China.
As early as 2007, a study by the University of Hong Kong stated that: “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”[i] After SARS, wild animal markets were temporarily banned. Various Chinese scientists wrote about the risks related to the trade and the risks of eating wild meat.
As a result, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government did take measures to control the wild animal markets and limit the risk. However, prohibiting wild animal markets is challenging, due to the fact that many of these markets, and their use of wild animal ingredients, were not only economically important, but also a part of the local culture. Thus, for political reasons, the Chinese Communist Party decided to ignore the risk and the bans were eventually gradually lifted.
But the Chinese Communist Party did not take risks solely on behalf of the Chinese people. The risk was shared by the entire global community. As a result, today, more than 4 billion people are living in some type of quarantine, afraid for their own health, their loved ones’ health, and the future of their livelihood.
Now China has made eating wild animals illegal after the current Coronavirus outbreak. But the fear is that the exceptions will keep the markets functioning and, after some time, the wildlife markets will be fully opened again – just like after the 2003 SARS epidemic.
China has been trying to avoid the question of responsibility related to the Coronavirus epidemic by supporting conspiracy theories that the US army has brought the virus to China and spreading fake news in Europe related to the epidemic.
If, as the Chinese government argues, wildlife markets were not the real source of the current crisis, then there is less reason for China to ban the markets. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the international community to make sure that wildlife markets will be banned, not only in China, but also in Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia. We were not able to avoid the current Corona crisis, but we need to be able to stop the next global epidemic.
[i] Cheng, Lau, Woo, and Yuen, ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection’, 2007, Research Centre of Infection and Immunology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong https://cmr.asm.org/content/cmr/20/4/660.full.pdf, Vol. 20, p 683.Tomi Huhtanen COVID-19 Crisis Globalisation Trade
Could China have avoided the Coronavirus outbreak?
06 Apr 2020
The pandemic that has now affected billions, forcing nearly half the world’s population into some form of lockdown, is far from over. In fact, infectious disease experts warn that the majority of countries grappling with the virus have not yet reached their respective apex. For the European Union, this means that thousands more will fall ill; supplies of ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment, as well as hospital beds, will increasingly become scarce; businesses will continue to suffer or face bankruptcy and economic output will stagnate, with a Eurozone (and global) recession all but guaranteed.
As such, this is not only the problem of any one, or a few, EU member states. It is a uniquely European problem, that only a European solution can effectively solve.
In the EU, knee-jerk reactions like the closure of internal borders, and the initial freezes on national exports of protective medical equipment and testing kits — later rectified by the Commission — run contrary to our European way of life, making them appear particularly abrasive and extraordinary.
There have also been numerous examples of member states donating medical supplies to other members who need them more urgently, with some even welcoming cross-border corona patients to their hospitals. But, as noble and heart-warming as these instances of EU solidarity are, alone, they are not enough.
The EU has been far too divided in its response, to its own detriment. A remedy to a crisis of this magnitude (455,901 cases in the EU/EEA and UK at the time of writing) must be proportional, uniquely European, centralised at EU-level, and better communicated to the general public. It must present “EU solidarity” not merely as a platitude, but as a resounding, undeniable fact.
The EU is a coalition of 27 member states that agree to work intimately with one another for benefits they could not otherwise obtain alone. If the EU wants to pass the post-stress test that will inevitably follow this pandemic, and the inescapably intertwined questions of legitimacy, it must start acting like its future depends on it. After all, that is exactly what is at stake.
There have been numerous attempts, and there will be many more temptations, to close off our open societies and revert back to mere nation states. Some measures are indeed vital to contain the spread of the virus, such as internal border closures, but the EU must take coordinated action to counter potential consequences, like threats to food security.
Although the Commission has already taken necessary action to address some of these concerns, like the implementation of “green lanes” throughout the EU, more oversight will be needed to ensure the flow of goods goes unhindered. For instance, it should also lead a coordinated effort to oversee and expedite the distribution of medical equipment from members where production is concentrated, namely the Czech Republic, France, Germany, and Poland, to members in dire need.
This is not only the problem of any one, or a few, EU member states. It is a uniquely European problem, that only a European solution can effectively solve.
The EU must also continue to pass swift, sweeping emergency measures to support the hardest-hit member states. The Commission-proposed EU Solidarity Fund is a good start, but it is only a temporary lifeline.
The next major hurdle for the EU is the negotiation of a more long-term, far-reaching, joint fiscal package to address the wider economic repercussions caused by the virus. Herein lies the most significant bottleneck for the EU’s COVID-19 response to date, one for which the von der Leyen Commission, as well as the Council, must find a way to overcome. If the already-tainted idea of ‘corona bonds’ does not receive the traction necessary to make it a viable option, then emergency crisis meetings must be held with more frequency in order to expedite alternatives, like the pan-European unemployment reinsurance scheme.
There is one more area, however, where the EU, and the Commission in particular, needs to improve: communication. Rather than highlighting instances of EU solidarity via the actions of individual member states, the EU’s communication strategy should be centralised as well, involving joint press conferences between the heads of the Commission, Council and Parliament, at least once per week. In addition to presenting the latest trends and figures, the EU should use such an occasion to better communicate the co-ordinated efforts that it is spearheading, which to date are largely flying under the radar.
Furthermore, information on the Commission’s webpage documenting the assistance provided by the EU to the member states (and among member states) should be more easily accessible, streamlined, and categorised by country.
This pandemic is a defining moment for the European Union. It has the opportunity to prove its potential and demonstrate that it can overcome a threat of such magnitude, together, by navigating the crisis as a union. Failure to respond in a unified manner could de-rail the progression of the European project for decades to come, or deliver a blow to its legitimacy from which it may never recover.
On the other hand, if the EU effectively demonstrates the benefits of a more coordinated, federal-like response, it could leave the doorway open to further integration and centralised autonomy – from finance to security – to better prepare and respond to crises of similar proportion in the future.
Before we rid ourselves of this virus in Europe, and on a global scale, things will get worse before they get better, but we are all in this together. Instances of EU solidarity, alone, will not be enough to overcome this crisis. However, if the Commission and the other Institutions step up their role as the central nerve system of the EU, facilitating a more centralised, unified, and better-communicated response to Europeans, we may even emerge as a stronger Union.
After all, the coronavirus knows no boundaries, why should our response?Gavin Synnott COVID-19 Crisis EU Institutions EU Member States Leadership
COVID-19 in Europe demands a centralised European response
03 Apr 2020
At its core, the Coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic is a human tragedy. However, the feeling is growing that this unprecedented public health crisis is also beginning to threaten the stability of the Eurozone. The very public disagreements about Coronabonds is no longer just an economic exercise.
The legacy of the past decade of financial crises coupled with the immense social tragedy of the past month has transformed this debate into a much deeper, more emotive discussion. But is the concentration on Coronabonds masking the much larger structural reforms needed at Eurozone level? How can effective solidarity be shown between Eurozone members? What can history tell us? Is Politics, not the Pandemic, risking the future of the Eurozone?Eoin Drea Margherita Movarelli COVID-19 Eurozone
Online Event ‘Is it the Politics, not the Pandemic, that threatens the Eurozone?’
Live-streams - Multimedia
02 Apr 2020
The outcome of the Slovak parliamentary election held one month ago resonated with the mood of Slovak society, which clamoured for a change. Election winner Igor Matovič and his party OĽANO, (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) was the only opposition party to have tapped into that emotion. With a pledge to rid the state of the mafia, it sent into opposition corrupt socialists after they had spent almost twelve years in power. The election also brought other surprises, such as the failure of the ambitious conservative-liberal alliance Progressive Slovakia and SPOLU (Together) to obtain seats in parliament or yet another failed parliamentary attempt by the Christian Democrats. Still, there was no space for their political analyses. Winners and losers alike lacked time to process emotions brought up by the election results.
This lack of time was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also resulted in the appointment of the government in the record time of three weeks. The new government took over the reins with a collapsing healthcare system and with no reserves of medical supplies. With its slightly more than 400 infected patients to date, Slovakia belongs to the less affected countries. This may be due to insufficient testing capabilities as well as the timely introduction of strict measures and a disciplined population. What played its part in this regard was not only a health concern, but also a particular legacy of communist times. Back then, civil defence drills to prepare for enemy attacks and donning oxygen masks were a normal part of life.
The fragility of the new coalition
Igor Matovič, a seasoned political marketer with a propensity for populism and an admirer of Orbán’s national referendums, undoubtedly had a different idea about taking over the reins of power. Even under standard circumstances, his coalition consisting of parties with diverging views about relations with the EU, and also regarding fundamental ethical issues, would draw bets on how long it would survive. OL’ANO is hardly a normal political party and is run by Matovič like a company. His theatrical manner of appearance, egocentrism and tendency to shoot from the hip has earned him the reputation of a dangerous manipulator, not only in the media.
A security risk exists with the second strongest party, Sme Rodina (We Are Family). Its chairman, who has a history of mafia contacts and money laundering, is currently the speaker of parliament. The party is a member of the same political group in the European Parliament as Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini.
The third member of the coalition is the SaS (Freedom and Solidarity), with its chairman Richard Sulík advocating the return of EU governance to the state level. In 2012, his party did not approve the European Stability Mechanism in a vote serving as a proxy for expressing confidence in the government. This resulted in the demise of the pro-reform government and the comeback of the socialists. Ironically, this time, Sulík as the newly appointed minister for the economy, will call on the help of the ESM to bail out entrepreneurs who are in danger of going bankrupt.
The Za ľudí party (For the People), was also made part of the coalition mainly to obtain the constitutional majority. Its chairman ex-president Andrej Kiska gave up his mandate on the grounds of health making its further crystallization or European profiling remain unclear.
The campaign is over, leadership is needed
Faced with the pressure of the predicted broad spread of the virus, the extraordinary government sessions take place on a daily basis. The biggest car manufacturers shut their factories two weeks ago. Every day brings new self-employed entrepreneurs unable not only to pay their bills, but even to provide for the basic living necessities of their families.
However, the adoption of relevant measures will have to be intensified even further. The media note that Prime Minister Matovič has not yet been able to switch from a campaigning mode to assuming an executive position, as he spends much of his time speaking to the cameras rather than sitting at the negotiating table. Considerable criticism has also been raised by the newly adopted “lex corona” legislation, which allows monitoring people infected with the virus via mobile operators. Let’s hope that such information will not be misused and that Slovakia will not follow the path of Hungary, which restricted democratic freedoms, allegedly in the name of the fight against the virus.
Despite the internal ideological discrepancies, the new Slovak government enjoys considerable support from Slovak society. This is also a consequence of the fact that the opposition is being represented by corrupt socialists and neo-Nazis, who are just waiting for the first faulty step of the current government.
The opportunity is there for Igor Matovič himself to prove, through extensive engagement, cooperation and supporting solidarity within the EU, that his election was the right choice for Slovakia. He has a tremendous opportunity to not become another Beppe Grillo, but a statesman who will lead the country out of this crisis.Viktória Jančošeková COVID-19 Crisis Democracy EU Member States
Slovakia and the Pandemic: Never let a crisis go to waste
02 Apr 2020
At its core, the Coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic is a human tragedy. However, it has also become clear that the negative economic and social impacts are deeper and broader than were first anticipated. The continuing spread of this virus and the required measures to contain it have resulted in a concurrent slowdown in all major global economies. This represents an unprecedented challenge to the economic integrity of the EU, its constituent member states, and the global trading framework.COVID-19 Crisis Economy EU Institutions Eurozone
Whatever it takes, for as long as is needed: Mapping a new European Recovery Programme
01 Apr 2020
Stay Home, Stay Informed
The coronavirus has affected all of us and, equally, scared all of us. We are forced to change our daily lives and habits, along with the way we work and interact with others. It has reminded us how fragile and vulnerable we are, but also how we take many things for granted. It would be wise to use this time for self-reflection ahead of new challenges.
President, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies
Stay Home, Stay Informed The coronavirus has affected all of us and, equally, scared all of us. We are forced to change our daily lives and habits, along with the way we work and interact with others. It has reminded us how fragile and vulnerable we are, but also how we take many things for […]
The world is currently bent on its knees amid the Coronavirus health crisis. While most of the European continent is “on pause”, for some countries it has turned out to be a time of dreams coming true. North Macedonia’s NATO accession is a case in point.
The extremely difficult circumstances for Spain which is coping with the COVID-19 were not an obstacle for this momentous decision. The Senate in Madrid remotely voted and passed the bill approving North Macedonia’s accession, the last country on the path to this achievement. This completed one of the two strategic goals for the country since its independence: to join the North Atlantic Treaty.
The news from Spain was praised by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and after the signature of the protocol by the President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski, the formal ceremony of flag-raising is set to take place in Brussels. With this, the country’s quest which began in 1995 when it joined the alliance’s Partnership for Peace program has been completed. In 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, the longstanding name dispute was a reason for Greece to push strongly NATO not to give an invitation to a then-constitutionally named Republic of Macedonia.
And that is only a part of the celebratory package. Some historic mistakes have been given a chance to be repaired. As Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez put it in his novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ (especially relevant nowadays), “humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest.” The same can be said about consensus among EU member states.
After the hugely disappointing failure to take a decision in October 2019, the Council of the EU on 25 March adopted conclusions on the EU’s enlargement policy, giving the green light to the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In a completely unusual setting for EU institutional meetings, the efforts by the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi have been met with success.
The EU Council in October failed to decide on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania mostly due to the French position that the EU is in need of “deep internal reform and a new methodology for negotiations”. In February 2020, the Commission adopted and published a revised enlargement methodology. This new procedure seemed to appease French President Emmanuel Macron who slowly shifted his position. He raised first hopes that the French veto would be lifted after facing huge criticism by the EU’s leadership and leaders of Western Balkan countries on the “fatality” of the mistake he was making. Perhaps, as Márquez wrote in 1988, “a Liberal president was exactly the same as a Conservative president, but not as well dressed.”
The reactions to the new enlargement strategy in the Western Balkans ranged from “unimpressed” and “it will all end up as another paper-pushing exercise” to the more optimistic tone that “it will work only if used properly”.
But what really counts is that the air has been cleared on this issue after 5 months. As Márquez would say, the EU “opened the door a crack wide enough for [North Macedonia and Albania] to pass through.” The details of the negotiation process to follow have not been released yet, as the crisis triggered by the Coronavirus outbreak has created many uncertainties and a halt in many political and institutional processes. Once again it shows, when there is a political will, not even a slow internet connection can stop the dreams of some countries being fulfilled.
For North Macedonia, the utmost strategic goals in the 29 years of the country’s independence have been EU and NATO accession. The unfortunate timing is moving the celebratory atmosphere to the homes of those staying in quarantine, as the country has imposed a curfew and restrictive measures on people’s movement in an attempt to cope with the spread of the COVID-19. After all, it’s more than just a light at the end of the tunnel.Katerina Jakimovska Balkans COVID-19 Enlargment European Union
Marquez in the Western Balkans – Lifelong dreams fulfilled in the time of Corona
26 Mar 2020
From the top floor of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, it must look like all of Europe is burning. A public health crisis that targets the most vulnerable in society, a global pandemic, member states scrambling to prevent their economies collapsing, closed borders (definitely a Brussels obsession) and mounting social anxiety.Eoin Drea COVID-19 Eurozone
Like the coronavirus, the euro zone must adapt or die
In the Media
23 Mar 2020
Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is spreading quickly in European countries, with the situation being most advanced – and worrying – in Italy. Many aspects of the disease are still unknown. How many people in Europe are currently infected and how many will be in the future? What percentage of the infected will need hospital care? How many of the infected will die from the disease?
As answers to these questions are still unknown, there are strikingly different scenarios presented by the main health institutes of the different EU member states. These different scenarios present end results where the final estimation of the infected and deceased can be different by a factor of ten or more.
As a result, there seem to be two different strategic approaches: one is to say that our main aim is to ‘flatten the curve’, aiming to reduce the speed of the spread of the virus by social distancing so it will not overwhelm the healthcare system and, in the most extreme cases, hospital care can be offered. This strategic thinking is most clearly currently expressed in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and in countries where the disease has not yet spread severely.
The argument is that stopping society altogether for months is not feasible, and when society would become active again, the disease would start to spread anyway – thus again a new lock-down would be needed.
The other approach is to try to contain the spread of the virus as soon as possible. This is what China and other Asian countries have chosen as a strategy, this is what the World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending and clearly what Italy is opting for now.
During the epidemic, there has been a question over how much European health care systems can handle. Before we had some data from China, but as the situation in Italy is evolving, we are having a more detailed and reliable picture. The following conclusion is emerging: If we just try to decrease the speed of the virus’ spread, our health care systems will be overwhelmed. Many more people will require hospital care (read: potential lives saved) than what health care systems can offer. The bottleneck is found at the number of hospital beds, respiratory aids, oxygen pumps, and trained health care professionals. Italy is a concrete example of that reality.
Italy’s case has been painted as an exception, because the virus most probably spread there unnoticed for weeks. But what is often forgotten is that even if the (speculative) real amount of infected in Italy is around 300,000 people, a number way higher than any Italian official has estimated, it would still be only 0,5% of the whole population.
If the disease is allowed to impact the whole society, the mainstream speculative estimations of the percentage of the population infected vary from 30% to Angela Merkel’s maximum 70% in Germany. In Italy, the current estimate of 0,5% of the population to 30% is a long way to go, with the current volume of patients multiplied by 60 even within a longer period of time. Additionally, solely considering average national numbers is misleading, as there are regions where the disease is and will be more intense.
If Covid-19 is allowed to affect the whole society, even at a slower pace, the European health care systems will not be able to take care of all the patients needing care and thousands of people will die. The numbers will be just too big, just flattening the curve will not work out.
If European states want to save lives, they need to embrace now the measures taken by the Italian government in those countries where it has not yet been done: to implement confinement. This approach will have a strong negative impact on society, but so does the death of thousands of people just because of a lack of hospital care. In the upcoming weeks, the focus needs to be total in combating the virus. Passively by staying home as much as possible, and actively by urgently increasing the number of hospital beds, respiratory aids, and training of the temporary health care professionals.
Northern Italy’s health care system is one of the best in Europe. Hard-hit Bergamo’s main hospital let a camera crew in for the rest of Europe to know what an overwhelmed healthcare system looks like. For Italy today, the strategy is very clear: to stop the virus whatever the cost. Other European countries still have one to a few weeks before the situation will reach the same stage as in Italy. They should use them wisely.
Italy’s lesson for Europe: Flattening the curve isn’t enough, we must actively tame the Covid-19 epidemic
23 Mar 2020
Empty supermarkets, sold out face masks, and the prices of hand sanitiser reaching absurd heights; this is the picture that has been portrayed of Italy in the past weeks. As of 10th March, 9,175 people in Italy have contracted COVID-19 (a.k.a. the Coronavirus) with the majority of cases concentrated in the North of the country.
After closing schools, universities, museums and cancelling public events (even sacred Serie A football games), the government took even stricter measures by issuing a decree during the night of the 7th of March. This measure ordered the isolation of the region of Lombardy and 14 provinces in Emilia-Romagna, Veneto and Piedmont. The decree prohibited all circulation in and out of the “red zones” with only partial exemptions granted for emergencies or work. It also involved closing all schools and universities. These measures are in place until 3rd April. During a press conference on the evening of 9th March, the Italian government extended the restrictive measures to all regions. In effect, placing Italy on total lockdown.
The reason behind such a drastic decision of the government, besides obviously containing the spread of the virus, is to prevent contagion to the southern regions of Italy. The Italian healthcare system, based on universal access, has been put under immense pressure with more and more patients contracting the disease. The mortality rate among infected people is not extremely high and the average age of the deceased is 81, however, a continuously increasing number of people require intensive care. Having a huge wave of contagion in regions like Apulia, Campania or Sicily, may actually lead to the collapse of already weak southern healthcare facilities should the virus continue to spread.
But the impact on the population’s health, or on normal social interactions, are not the only impacts of COVID-19 on Italy. The repercussions on the already fragile economy of the country will be massive. The shutdown of Lombardy, accounting alone for 46% of foreign investments into Italy, will have significant economic repercussions for the Italian economy. Repercussions that are now impacting on every region in Italy.
Although the Italian government has already announced stimulus measure totalling approximately 4 billion euros these measures will not be enough to counter the longer-term economic impacts.
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the Italian economy experienced a significant slowdown in late 2019. In February 2020, the European Commission lowered its forecasts for Italian growth to just 0.3% for the coming year and a budget deficit of approximately 2.2% of GDP. Events since then – now escalated to an unlimited shutdown of the vast majority of the Italian economy – will result in Italy entering recession in the coming months. It will also result in a significant deterioration in public finances (both in terms of lower tax incomes and higher health and social security expenditures).
Although the Italian government has already announced stimulus measure totalling approximately 4 billion euros (or a 0.2% increase in the government deficit) these measures will not be enough to counter the longer-term economic impacts. This is due to three main factors.
First, the Italian economy – particularly Northern Italy – is embedded in both European and global supply chains. Thus it is doubly exposed both to the ongoing containment situation in China and the coming restriction of Europe’s economy due to the spread of the virus. Second, tourism in Italy accounts for approximately 15% of total employment. As we enter the start of the tourist season it is likely that there will be a dramatic reduction in tourist visits to Italy, at the very least for the next 3-6 months, but possibly longer. The Italian body representing tourism provides estimates that 22 million fewer visitors to Italy will result in an economic cost of 2.7 billion euros. Third, the Italian economy was already stagnating before COVID-19 arrived. Thus, the depth of the recession will be deeper (and possibly longer) than many now predict.
COVID-19 should be the starting point for Eurozone 2.0.
In this context, it is likely that Italy will require additional spending of at least 1 to 1.5% of GDP to effectively counter the recession currently underway. This will not be a situation unique to Italy. For example, the recent mitigation measures announced in Ireland will likely account for at least 0.7% of Irish GDP in the short term.
Unfortunately, a severe economic slowdown – with severe societal implications – is now underway across Europe. This also implies a significant level of risk for the future stability of the Eurozone. What is clear is that a European approach which prioritises adherence to existing budgetary rules over mitigating the worst impacts of the coming recession will lead to a further deterioration of economic and social conditions.
What is required now – for Italy, and shortly for the rest of the Eurozone – is an understanding of the exceptional nature of the current circumstances. This should be reflected in the application of highly flexible Eurozone budgetary rules for as long as the crisis lasts. It should also stimulate a renewed push for much more fundamental changes in how the Eurozone is constructed and managed. No more tinkering around the edges, real reform can no longer be subject to political inaction. Completing Banking Union and severing the “doom loop” between governments and banks should now be the top priority. Work should also begin immediately on placing the national capitals back at the centre of the Eurozone family. And that must include greater fiscal flexibility.
It would be easy now – in a state of societal unease – to resort to classical Brussels based thinking about how the economic impacts of the Coronavirus should lead to more centralisation, more common functions in the Eurozone. That would be a mistake. Italy’s largely unreformed and unbalanced economy is an example of all the imbalances the Eurozone was designed to protect against. COVID-19 should be the starting point for Eurozone 2.0. The only alternative is fragmentation and ultimate collapse.Anna Nalyvayko Eoin Drea COVID-19 Crisis Economy EU Member States Society
Could Coronavirus save Italy and the Eurozone?
20 Mar 2020
The European Union is not disintegrating. Some might be tempted to think so given the chaotic European response to COVID-19, the initial lack of coordination and the rapid introduction of border controls between member states. But in cases of national emergency national leaders rightfully tend to the needs of their citizens. This was to be expected as it mirrors our own individual reactions confronted with a sudden shock – irrational behaviour, potential panic and hoarding of supplies. All in all, the situation reflects the true nature of the European Union – a unique international organisation with federalist features but ultimately driven by national capitals and national interest. Many people expect decisive unilateral federal action but they won’t get one, especially in the short term. We will instead see a retreat to national lines, the adoption of drastic measures and then a decisive ‘make or break’ moment for a collective European response. This may be painful to say, but we will have a textbook EU crisis response.
The European Union does not have exclusive competences to deal with healthcare matters and its role is mostly to coordinate health policies among its members. Additionally, it relies on national capitals for a coherent response in times of emergencies or natural disasters. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism might be pan-European in name but any type of assistance needs to be provided by the individual countries after a national decision. Regrettably, this is why Italy didn’t receive support in the immediate days after the situation got out of hand – the rest of the countries were chaotically wondering how to organise their own limited resources and equipment.
What the European institutions can do in the short-term is to quickly mobilise available resources at their direct disposal and also facilitate the smooth functioning of the single market. In the last several days the European Commission took a number of important steps to achieve these goals by proposing a reshuffle of billions of euros from the European structural funds in order to provide relief to public budgets. Coherent measures were also announced on relaxing state aid rules and also providing liquidity to small businesses across the continent.
No man is an island, and no European member state can cope with such a crisis on its own.
Most importantly, the Commission started untangling the protectionist knots which several countries started (somewhat understandably) tying due to the emergency in their countries. After the European Commission successfully intervened, medical equipment will not be limited nationally but will be exported throughout the Union. In times of border checks and travel restrictions, the Commission must be on its guard to ensure the free flow of goods and especially the smooth functioning of supply chains which will be vital for citizens, business and industry. Parliament and Council must be on standby to quickly authorise certain acts by the Commission or update relevant legislation where needed. The European Parliament, especially, has a key role in providing due democratic oversight and ensuring the proper communication of the adopted measures with European citizens.
So far, so good. The Commission will try to be the honest broker between member states which on their side will slowly exhaust their budgets on national measures to contain the virus and also in the attempt to soften the blow for employers, workers and industry. In parallel, emergency or redirected European funding will also prove inefficient if the crisis lasts throughout Spring. The Martens Centre already outlined the major political economy implications of the coronavirus for Europe and the need for flexibility without limits when it comes to ensuring liquidity and adequate fiscal response.
What comes next? The member states will rightfully focus on preventing contagion and saving lives. However, which European country can individually handle such a shock? China, where the virus started and spread worldwide, registered thousands of deaths, an unprecedented decline of industrial production and a dramatic collapse in car sales, domestic flights, retail and many other economic sectors. The Asian hegemon pumped and redirected a huge chunk of its national resources in order to tackle the crisis. If this terrible outbreak continues throughout the next several months, Europe will be confronted with an economic earthquake which could eventually threaten the Eurozone and the future of the common currency. Some member states will be reluctant to talk about bailouts and mobilising emergency funds but this might prove inevitable.
No man is an island, and no European member state can cope with such a crisis on its own. We have seen it all and will see it again. European summits will grow long; patience will wear thin. Vows will be broken and new ones will be spoken until the EU muddles through. Successfully.
The whole European industry will need to readjust and member states will be forced to collectively rethink the functioning of major parts of their economies. Ultimately, this continent will need to find a way to redistribute vast resources quickly and efficiently.
The European Union will not come out of this crisis as a federation. But this crisis will receive a federal response.Dimitar Lilkov COVID-19 Crisis EU Member States European Union
Muddling through: Towards an EU federal response to the crisis
20 Mar 2020
The fact that Slavoj Žižek sees the end of global capitalism coming, should probably be read more as a sign of normality than a reason for undue alarm. After all, he’s done it many times over the last 20 years. But looking at global developments over the last couple of weeks, the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic is not only changing our daily lives on a global scale. It also has a political fallout with at least three main dimensions: the relations between China and the West, the authoritarian temptation in the West itself, and the renewed calls by the Left for Big Government. They are strongly interlinked because ultimately, they are all about the different forms of organising our societies and the relation between the individual and the collective. While it’s early days to outline political implications, some things can already be said.
The systemic rivalry between China and the West
From the very beginning, when the spread of the virus had barely exceeded Hubei Province, Chinese soft power was at stake, first referring to time-honoured Chinese practices of selling wild animals in unhygienic markets. This likely produced the outbreak, and the cult of cowardice and secrecy in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allowed the virus to spread initially. Then came the first pushback by CCP spin doctors, with a nationwide war declared on the coronavirus, the shutdown in Hubei Province and beyond, pictures of marching doctors but also a brutal suppression of criticism, epitomised by the fate of the early whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang.
Externally, CCP propagandists quickly began to send two messages to the rest of the world: First, that the Party is not only firmly in control, but also that Chinese authoritarianism is better suited to combat the virus – the famous time-lapse video of the ‘hospital built in 10 days’ comes to mind. Secondly, on social media, Chinese trolls began accusing the West of racism because of travel bans and quarantine for travellers from China –knowing full well that in most Western countries, the racism card plays well, at least with liberal audiences. Of course, these accusations were highly hypocritical in themselves. Imagine for a moment that the virus had truly had its origins in a Western or African country. Anyone who has ever been to China knows how the CCP would have exploited racist tropes in such a situation.
Since the beginning of March, in parallel to the first signs of an easing of the virus spread in China itself, a more ominous phase in CCP propaganda began. Travel bans and quarantine were now pronounced on non-Chinese, the blame for the virus was increasingly openly shifted to the West, and more or less open threats were made by Chinese commentators that for pharmaceuticals, the rest of the world depends on China, and China’s ‘goodwill’ might end. The generous delivery of masks and equipment to Italy in early March won’t make up for the big hit that China’s soft power has taken, together with its image as the selfless force for the good of humankind as it has been impressively cultivated in the Netflix Sci-Fi drama ‘Wandering Earth’.
Accordingly, even when we move back to global economic growth, the West as a whole, not just the US, will want to reduce economic and technological dependency on China. Some soft decoupling will become inevitable. But the mother of all systemic questions is indeed whether the future belongs to societies that are technologically best capable to harness the forces of nature, irrespective of political ideas (i.e. to China, as Bruno Maçães subtly suggests); this stance is highly questionable because it disregards cases such as Taiwan or South Korea.
The authoritarian temptation and the end of European solidarity?
As a general rule, authoritarians love emergencies, in the West as well. Of course, some could not withstand the temptation to conflate the migration crisis with the virus threat. What is more ominous is the quick breakdown of the initial determination of governments in the Schengen zone to keep internal borders open. Within two weeks, this was overtaken by an escalating wave of border closings. Certainly, any return to more national or even regional self-sufficiency as a result of the corona crisis will only reinforce already existing conservative and populist trends criticizing globalisation as such. What may eventually emerge is a new equilibrium between self-reliance and a global division of labour, but the costs of truly reversing globalisation are unlikely to be tolerated by Western societies even after this emergency.
It remains to be seen to what extent this crisis will really be a boon to the West’s new authoritarians, not only because their US idol, President Trump, has performed so dismally in the unfolding crisis in the US, but mainly because Central Europe’s autocrats may show some of the CCP’s dishonesty in dealing with the public while lacking the technology and efficiency to come to grips with the crisis. This is bound to backfire.
To draw a direct correlation between authoritarianism and effectively fighting a pandemic is surely simplistic. Of the two best performing Asian countries in dealing with the pandemic, one is mildly authoritarian – Singapore – and one is a vibrant liberal democracy – Taiwan. Iran, however, one of the worst-performing countries so far, is highly authoritarian.
Return to Big Government?
The Corona pandemic also reinforces authoritarian tendencies on the left. First, there is the classical infatuation of Socialists and Social Democrats with big government and a strong state that are not only able to set tough rules to private behaviour, but also provide high-quality universal health care. Secondly, there are the Greens, asking why tough measures strongly impacting individual behaviour are possible at such short notice in the pandemic, while they are so hard to bring about in the climate crisis – which is, according to the Greens, much more lethal than Coronavirus.
Both trains of thought make the same mistake: They confuse an obvious exception with the rule. People are willing to accept quarantines and lockdowns because they know these are temporary. Big state socialism has failed in the 20th century – catastrophically in the East, and slightly less catastrophically in Western Europe, but failed it has there, too.
We will get over this. In the upcoming weeks and months, some of our ugliest and some of our best behaviour as humans will come to light. Some of our daily routines may well change for good. But the big exception will not become the new normal. Authoritarianism – Chinese or ‘Western’ – will not be the automatic winner. The West will seek new ways of reducing dependence on China. But globalisation is not coming to a grinding halt. And Open Society is far from finished.Roland Freudenstein COVID-19 Democracy Economy Globalisation Society
Brave New Coronaworld? COVID-19 and the Future of Open Society
17 Mar 2020
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is continuing to spread quickly around the world. It is a highly transmissible virus which impacts disproportionally on older age cohorts. Large gaps in our understanding remain, particularly with regard to the possible extent of undiagnosed cases and whether the virus will naturally reduce in Europe as the spring develops. However, as of March 16 th, over 170,000 global cases have been confirmed with over 6,500 deaths. All European countries are now preparing for large increases in the number of affected people requiring treatment and hospital care. On March 11th , COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisaton.
Understandably, much of the current commentary on the virus still focusses on the fluid situation regarding the number of infections, the mortality rate and the differing containment measures enacted by varying states. The level of societal unease at the implications of the virus – restricted activities span all aspects of daily life from cinemas to cafes, from schools to universities and businesses – is currently dominating the media discourse. Such a focus reflects the overwhelming priority of all societies to protect human health where possible.COVID-19 Crisis Economy European Union Society
“Flexibility without Limits”. The Political Economy Implications of the Coronavirus
16 Mar 2020