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View from Brussels: For the EU’s virus response, the skies are the limit

Image credit: European Union 2020

Coronavirus continues to spread across the world, but the European Union’s response to the pandemic has exposed the frailties of its institutions.

The EU works best when its 27 member countries are pulling in the same direction – or at least not pulling in different directions – towards some common goal. Climate policy and certain aspects of foreign affairs have emerged lately as rallying points.

But the ongoing pandemic has confirmed that the bloc is rendered mostly toothless when governments go it alone or fail to agree on the best course of action. Europe’s economic response and a coordinated stance on whether to close internal border crossings are prime examples.

As thousands of people succumb to the virus and companies from all sectors teeter on the brink of collapse, EU prime ministers and presidents failed to agree on a robust economic bailout at the latest e-summit.

A subsequent meeting of finance heads also had to compromise on a final deal that most analysts branded a ‘fudge’, after infighting between northern and southern countries torpedoed a better agreement.

European politics luminaries like Jacques Delors – who ran the EU’s executive branch for a decade – and former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta have both warned that coronavirus could do more damage to the bloc’s fundamental structure than Brexit.

The signs do not look good but there are silver linings. EU officials responded in record time to a plea from Europe’s airlines to suspend problematic rules on airport take-off and landing slots, for example. Air travel demand has plummeted but carriers still had to put planes in the air to stick to the ‘use it or lose it’ regulations. MEPs and officials called this “totally nonsensical” and denounced the empty ‘ghost flights’.

Changing EU law is normally a laborious process, where vested interests rise to the top and obstructionist actors come out of the woodwork. In this case, even a moratorium on face-to-face meetings could not stop them.

The Commission first proposed waiving the rules until the end of June. National ambassadors and MEPs then took note of the worsening situation and further pleas from airlines to extend it until October. Changes were voted on and in force on 1 April.

The EU’s efforts to secure personal protection equipment supplies have at least won plaudits internally after supply ended up exceeding projections.

But that is where substantial EU progress in the anti-corona fight, arguably, ends. The Commission has relaxed state aid rules so governments can fund struggling companies at their discretion but the executive branch was hardly in a position to start enforcing antitrust rules at a critical time like this.

The Commission also retooled the existing budget so it can be spent where it is needed. But that was simply a matter of accountancy and moving money from one pot into another.

Transport has emerged as a crucial battleground, given that planes, trains and automobiles have all contributed to the outbreak’s spread. But again, the EU has had to play clean-up rather than dictate policy.

Border restrictions in Central and Eastern Europe, unilaterally declared by some governments, played havoc with the flow of goods and people. Queues of up to 50 miles stretched along motorways linking the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland.

The Commission tried to step in with advice for setting up ‘green lanes’ for freight, to keep supply chains active, but the response to guidelines was slow and hauliers crowed that the recommended maximum waiting time of 15 minutes was too long. Worker federations also complained that there are few safeguards in place for driver health.

The bumbling response was the final straw for the head of one of the EU’s top science centres. Mauro Ferrari resigned in early April after seeing his proposal for quick action rebuffed and said his faith in the European project had suffered as a result.

The European Research Council said that Ferrari jumped before he was pushed, due to alleged time conflicts between his duties and external interests, but it does not instil confidence in the institutions, as many of the points he raised ring true.

Coronavirus retreads the old problem with the EU’s institutions: they have the de facto responsibility of dealing with crises but mostly lack the clout to get the job done.

If the EU does survive this, expect leaders to push for more competence in guiding healthcare and economic policy. But history suggests that this will not sway governments to yield more power to Brussels.

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