IW – 06/2020

The coronavirus pandemic is not only a stress test for national health systems, but also for Europe. The losses caused by the coronavirus crisis have been massive, most tragically with the thousands of people who have lost the fight against COVID-19. But Europe is also losing wealth and jobs, and the economic consequences of the pandemic will be dramatic. A united Europe is even more important during the crisis than in normal times.

European cohesion and solidarity are expected not only from the Member States, but also from European citizens. Europe must therefore find a way out of the crisis that will make it more sovereign, more supportive and stronger in the eyes of European citizens.

Thus, the focus in the coming months will be on taking away more lessons from the crisis. Do we need stronger EU disaster management? How can the joint procurement and production of essential medical supplies be improved? These are questions that are being discussed at length in Brussels and the Member States. We will also have to be prepared for a discussion about expanding the European Union’s competences in certain areas. These types of debates are put on the political agenda after every crisis that Europe has had to overcome.

European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, has already announced that it will be necessary to discuss the EU’s competences in the field of health in the future, especially given the criticism that the EU Commission has received concerning how it has dealt with the crisis. When it comes to health and safety policy initiatives in emergency situations, such as the fight against the coronavirus, the EU Commission can do no more than coordinate. That is why the Member States must work much more closely together on this very issue. In contrast, the Commission has far more scope when it comes to ‘money’ and mitigating the economic consequences. The Finance Ministers from the Member States have agreed on European aid programmes using the European Investment Bank and the European Stability Mechanism. Europe has provided unprecedented levels of financial aid to support the Member States. Discussions on an economic and social reconstruction plan will certainly be front and centre in the coming months. Germany and France, at least, have now proposed a programme worth €500 billion.

Germany will no doubt try to drive this proposal forward in the second half of the year. The German presidency of the Council begins on 1 July and ends on 31 December. One thing is certain: it will be different presidency from what was originally planned. The organisational challenges alone will be enormous. There are only a limited number of meeting rooms in the Brussels Council building in which the 1.5 m distance requirement can be observed. Physical meetings can, of course, be replaced by video conferences, but these also have their limitations. Most significantly, there are probably very few digital solutions that can replace the kind of face-to-face or confidential discussions that are often so important in the world of politics.

Germany is also in the process of adapting the topics for its programme. Some of the original priorities will be put on the backburner, while others will move to the top of the agenda. Platform work is one of the topics that will not be dealt with comprehensively at European policy level again until 2021. However, a stronger European minimum social security policy is something that might possibly be pursued under the German presidency of the Council. One of the issues at stake is poverty avoidance. The focus on digitalisation, which Germany had already set, will also be kept. The difficult Brexit negotiations and the EU budget will have to be continued under the German presidency. In addition, safeguarding supply chains and returning the production of pharmaceuticals and medical products back to Europe soil will also play a role.  

Commentary by Ilka Wölfle, Director of the European Representation of the German Social Insurance

Source: DGUV forum 04/2020