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  • Scintilla Benevolo

The European Union's take-away from 2020: a conversation with VOLT

By Scintilla Benevolo

Published Sat Nov 14 2020

It’s been almost a year since the first news on COVID-19 were published and, like many, I have grown tired of reading and hearing about it. It has taken over our lives, our normality, it has re-shaped our plans, relationships and thoughts. But most importantly, it has exposed the fragilities of our global and political system and rendered incredibly clear that borders are nothing more than imaginary, abstract lines. COVID-19 knows no borders, it travels and travels and will continue to do so until each country gets its numbers under control. Nobody is victorious until everybody is, making cooperation vital. We champion the diplomacy of the 21st century but clearly we still have a long way to go, because as soon as the alarm bell rang, each country shifted its full attention back inside its own borders. And this is why, despite being tired, it’s necessary to continue the conversation about COVID-19. Not about the numbers, the trends, the waves, the curve; but about what it means for the future. For our common future. If we fail to learn something from this crisis, the next one might be even more painful.

What is today’s health crisis teaching us about cooperation in the European Union and where do we go from here? The thoughts carried in this article are the culmination of a conversation with Michele Sangiovanni and Ernst Boutkan: members of VOLT Italy and VOLT Netherlands respectively. VOLT is a pan-european political party which ‘makes politics for a federal Europe across European borders’. PanDam reached out to VOLT for its knowledge of European affairs: a knowledge which made our conversation on Europe’s future and shortcomings a very fruitful and captivating one.

The diverging health approaches taken by EU member states were clear since the beginning. As my friends and family in Milan found themselves locked at home, in a city that had fallen completely quiet -the only noise coming from the shrieking sirens of ambulances- in Amsterdam I continued to attend lectures and seminars. Universities were eventually closed also in the Netherlands, but I was always free to leave my apartment and never had to worry about wearing a mask. Life remained completely unchanged in Sweden -where even bars and clubs didn’t close- while countries like Germany, Spain and France also opted for a lockdown. At the start of the crisis Europe divided itself into two, broad camps: one in favour of ‘flattening the curve’, the other opting for herd immunity. To some extent, these two camps clashed during the EU Recovery Fund negotiations, where some countries urged for solidarity while others worried about their wallets.

Ernst recalls the negotiations as being “a hard bargain”. “More money to Europe from the Northern countries was seen as free money to the Southern countries, who did not want to reform. On the one hand we saw the pictures coming in from Italy, their hospitals overflowing with patients, and felt that there was a need to help. But on the other hand we felt that our politicians had to be hard on the negotiation table, to stop our money from going South,” explains Ernst. As an Italian living in the Netherlands, the EU Recovery Fund negotiations were a very emotional period for me. I am very critical of my country, I understand the Northern states’ frustration considering how many EU funds have already disappeared in Italy -disappeared in people’s pockets and in senseless projects- but this time it felt different: it was completely arbitrary, which country would be hit first, and we just happened to be unlucky. We didn’t need the money to clean up a mess we made, we needed the money to save lives.

This message eventually came through, and solidarity triumphed. “The Recovery Fund was a revolutionary step for the Union. It’s an example of solidarity between European peoples, between European countries, and Italians are really happy for this,” explains Michele. The Recovery Fund really was an unprecedented step for the Union. With infections rising and spreading overseas so quickly, this breakthrough moment did not stay in the news for long, but I want to take a moment to emphasize its importance. For the first time in the history of the EU, member states are sharing a debt, a ‘federal’ deficit, to respond to an EU-wide economic shock. To finance the Recovery Fund, Bruxelles issued European bonds, effectively taking a first step towards a fiscal union. And the best part is that market demand for EU bonds has been high since the very start, meaning investors find the EU to be a safe, long-term investment.

And yet, after the Recovery Fund was signed, the European Union took a backseat once again. With each country pursuing its own strategy, responses -and infection numbers- continued to differ. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was coordinated on the European level. Member states endorsed different testing and tracing techniques, they developed different criteria for labeling other countries as ‘risk areas’, they spread different narratives about the danger and severity of COVID-19 and issued different quarantine periods and test requirements for positive persons. As Ernst recalls, “on the EU level people started asking more fundamental questions: ‘why are all the different countries giving different kinds of advice about where to travel? Why do I need to quarantine when I come from this country, but when people come from another country they don’t have to do that? Am I really safe now?’”. Indeed, the quarantine requirements set up during the summer almost became a skirmish between member states: ‘if you make my people quarantine, I’ll make your people quarantine!’. Why did the European Union not agree on common criteria upon which to determine the riskiness of traveling to a specific area, and issue coherent travel advice based on these?

“And also, of course”, continues Ernst, “the medical supply chain was dominated by countries that were buying as much as possible, and as the Netherlands is a small country of course you are going to lose that battle. We were too late with buying the materials we needed, and on top of that we are not a very interesting partner to make business with because we are not as big as Germany. So there was also the big question of ‘why are we not cooperating in buying medical supplies together as an European Union?’” For Italy, not buying medicine and protective equipment together as a united EU was especially hurtful because once again many of our politicians prioritized their personal gains over the health and safety of the Italian population. There is the scandal of Attilio Fontana, the President of the region of Lombardy, who allowed for an undocumented, private negotiation with the firm Dama Spa -owned by his brother in law- which was to receive half a million euros for a medically unapproved supply of masks and protective gear. Once a journalistic investigation was launched, Dama Spa declared their willingness to return the money and offer the supplies as a donation, but 150 thousand Euros are still missing. Or the 18 million masks ordered in May -at the height of the crisis- by the Lombardy region from the firm Fippi, which usually produces diapers. 8 million Euros were spent to purchase these masks, today dubbed the ‘diaper-masks’, of which only 10% were used, since the medical staff soon realized this protective equipment was completely ineffective and not certified. Over 170 doctors and nurses lost their lives to COVID-19 in Italy, as they were forced to work without safety equipment, and these scandals of unprofessionalism and corruption undoubtedly played a role.

Centralized, science and experience based policies on an EU level would have saved many countries from their own short-sightedness and structural problems. Like the Netherlands, which had months to prepare, to increase its hospital capacity, but instead remained in a state of denialism, costing many lives today. Or countries like Spain and Italy which reopened indoor clubs in the summer, effectively enhancing the strength and reach of the second wave. A centralized testing and tracing technique could have, furthermore, helped the whole of Europe mitigate today’s surging cases, which were in large part fueled by summer travels. Don’t get me wrong, some member states have gone a long way in helping others. Germany, for example, has accepted patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands into its ICUs. But as Ernst points out, the medical transfers from Dutch to German hospitals were coordinated by the military: why not the hospitals themselves? “It was all very badly coordinated, last minute stuff,” he explains.

But can we really blame the EU’s failure on the EU? “A lot of people are still asking ‘why is the EU not stepping up?’, but healthcare isn’t even a policy domain for the EU, so how could they step up?”, explains Ernst. Indeed, up to today the EU has remained primarily a financial union, meaning it effectively has the authority to achieve only so much. Part of the blame therefore lies in the Union’s member states, which have been reluctant to transfer more authority to Bruxelles. This has proved to be a disadvantage in combating today’s crisis, which is in nature a crisis transcending borders and which concerns not money, but health. On the other hand, as pointed out by Michele, the structure of the EU also holds some blame in that it does not allow citizens to take matters into their own hands. “The European parliament is essentially powerless,” he explains. If European citizens -unlike central governments- want to advance more cooperation at the EU level, they do not have the tools to do so.

There is a lesson to be learned here, a lesson which is best summarized in the words of Michele: “The European Union needs to be a real Union. The EU needs to be more social, more cultural, we cannot only cross paths at an economic level. The needs of the population can no longer be ignored”. Indeed, the EU can best serve its citizens only if it has the necessary power and the necessary spirit to do so. “When we improve the decision making tools and the time on which the EU can act, then we can really start to affect the lives of EU citizens for the better. Today’s crises, like the climate crisis and COVID-19, do not care about borders. The EU therefore needs to cooperate to overcome these issues, which means it needs to have the necessary tools to offer practical solutions to the problems we are facing”, explains Ernst. The COVID crisis offers an important testament as to why the EU needs to become more than a financial union: tomorrow’s problems will be increasingly across-borders, and we will only be better and faster in solving them if we work together. If we had worked together since the very start, perhaps we would not be finding ourselves in a second lockdown almost one year since COVID-19 first shook the world.

The Recovery Fund is a first, unprecedented step towards a fiscal union, towards a closer union. Only one question remains: will we learn from our mistakes and continue walking together, or will we stop here?

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