We are experiencing an unprecedented challenge for all of us in Europe with the coronavirus epidemic. It restricts our freedom of movement, puts tremendous strain on our health systems, and causes enormous economic damage. Many citizens in Europe are worried about their health, their loved ones, as well as their economic future. Italy was the first European country to be hit hard and has paid a very high price in terms of human lives. Doctors and nurses are working under unprecedented conditions in modern health systems, saving lives but risking their own. All Italians are enduring a long quarantine with huge personal sacrifices and facing the worst economic crisis since the second world war. At the same time, Italy is helping other countries prevent similar suffering by raising awareness about the gravity of the threat.
Especially in the beginning of the crisis, national export restrictions on desperately needed medical equipment and unilateral border closures have fragmented the European response to the coronavirus crisis. These national reflexes harm the reputation of the European project at just the time when European cooperation is most needed. But there are also important, inspiring examples of European solidarity when Italian lives are saved in hospitals in Saxony, Cologne, or Berlin. Europe means getting fresh food from neighbouring countries despite closed borders. Europe means international research teams searching for a vaccine across national borders. We welcome that the European Commission has decided to create a strategic “rescEU” stockpile of medical equipment. We are aware that member states have in the past refused to share more competences in the area of health, thereby limiting available options for the Commission.
But we need more European solidarity now. This is a crucial moment for cooperation in Europe. We have to prove that we are a community of values with a common destiny, working for each other in a turbulent, global world. It is time to make courageous joint steps to overcome fear. It is time for European unity, not national division. We therefore call on our governments to overcome the old patterns of division in Europe and in the eurozone.
We must provide emergency medical aid by treating patients from countries that are particularly affected and overburdened. If we pool our medical capacity on a European scale, we can save more lives. We must coordinate at European level the production and distribution of protective items such as masks, clothing, and disinfectants, as well as respirators, pharmaceuticals, and tests, so that they can be used where they are most urgently needed. Many companies in Europe are converting their production. We need to go beyond this and ensure that Europe is reasonably self-sufficient when it comes to critical medical equipment and medicines.
We need strong European decisions for public health and for economic and financial stability for all EU member states. All EU institutions, each acting within their respective mandates, as well as the member states, need to join in an urgent and convergent effort, consisting of four key actions:
- The European Central Bank has enacted important initial measures. We have to send clear signals to the financial markets that speculation against individual member states is pointless. We need a comprehensive financial protection shield for Europe and the euro area.
- This is not only the role of the monetary policy of the ECB but also belongs to democratic decisions in fiscal policy. All member states of the eurozone must get reliable and long-term access to the low interest rate funding made possible by the ECB. Therefore, we support the immediate opening of a health credit line in the European Stability Mechanism, with focused conditions to ensure that credits are used for well-defined categories of health-related programmes, without any additional conditionality.
- But we also need burden-sharing as the crisis hits all countries simultaneously and no single country is in this crisis because of bad economic or fiscal policy choices of the past, but because of a terrible pandemic. As we have entered this crisis together, we will only exit it well together. We need burden-sharing because some countries might otherwise run the risk of not being able to spend enough on health projects and a swift restart of economic activities. This would not only hurt the concerned country, but put the entire internal market at risk. We therefore call for the issuing of European Health Bonds with a clear and defined common objective and subject to jointly agreed guidelines. This would allow shouldering of the burden together, in a democratic way.
- The urgency is presently on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and its immediate consequences. We should, however, start to prepare the measures necessary to get back to a normal functioning of our societies and move to sustainable economic development, integrating, inter alia, the green transition and the digital transformation, and drawing all lessons from the crisis. This will require a coordinated exit strategy, a comprehensive recovery plan, and unprecedented investment. We invite the President of the Commission and the President of the European Council, in cooperation with the European Parliament and in consultation with other institutions, especially the ECB und the European Investment Bank, to start work on an Action Plan to this end.
This is not the time to let ourselves be divided. This is the time to stand united and fight for a common, better future.
ECFR’s Council Members Emma Bonino, Franziska Brantner, Piero Fassino, Franco Frattini, Ulrike Guérot, Ruprecht Polenz, Michael Schwarz and Nathalie Tocci are among the first signatories of this open letter.
Find the full list of signatories and join the petition here.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.