OPP Meeting Summary: EP Plenary – Council and Commission statements – European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak (26 March 2020)

A summary of the meeting is now available.

EP Plenary – 26 March 2020
Council and Commission statements – European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak
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Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

  • she recognised the extraordinary circumstances in which this plenary session was taking place, specifying the speed at which the COVID-19 outbreak had moved into a global pandemic with Europe at its epicentre;
  • it was a tragedy of an unimaginable scale compared to the thinking of merely a few weeks beforehand;
  • she maintained that she believed in the resilience of European citizens;
  • she noted the ‘heroes‘ in the worst-affected Member States (MS);
    • she identified doctors, nurses, cleaners, sanitation engineers etc. as some of the workers to whom ‘Europe owed a great debt‘;
  • she believed that everyone had a role to play by practising the recommended social-distancing;
    • she acknowledged the pain felt in relation to avoiding family members, particularly at a time of such concern for their physical and mental health;
  • she believed that close cooperation was needed to help each other through, citing that ‘love and compassion‘ were more contagious than this virus;
    • solidarity was helping to spread hope through all of Europe;
    • she cited the singing erupting from balconies all over Europe, the sending of postcards to those who felt loneliness from staying at home, the help given through shopping for elderly neighbours, the restaurants donating food, among many other acts of kindness and compassion;
    • she recalled industries shifting their focus from car-manufacturing to ventilator production, from perfumes to hand sanitisers, and from fashion to protective face-masks;
  • she believed that the EU had a responsibility to show leadership, acknowledging that no MS could tackle this crisis alone;
  • she criticised the MS whom had acted in unilateral ways in the initial stages of the outbreak, and stated that the EU was not a ‘fair-weather’ Union;
    • she believed these MS had felt the negative impact of their uncoordinated action, and had begun helping each other;
    • she believed that things had started improving after the introduction of mitigation measures at EU-level;
    • she reminded that European citizens were watching for what would happen next;
  • she stressed that the EU would stop at nothing to save lives;
  • she was grateful that MS were able to rely on some of the best healthcare professionals in the world, but she was concerned that they were being stretched to their breaking point;
    • they urgently required the right equipment and the right amount of this equipment;
    • she lambasted that this equipment had been stuck at border crossings for days at a time trying to reach the different MS:
    • she said that as a result of this, the EU was creating the first-ever European stockpile of medical equipment, of which 90% would be funded by the Commission;
    • the Commission had also launched several joint procurements for testing kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE);
    • 25 MS had joined the letter for this procurement and she was confident that their demands for PPE would be met through this European supply;
  • she recalled that acquiring knowledge would save lives, noting that there was a European team of scientists and experts whose meetings she chaired twice a week in order to aid in coming up with coordinated solutions to the pandemic;
    • this had deepened her conviction for the need to work together;
  • she believed that a successful response could only be coordinated if the single market and borderless Schengen area functioned in the way they needed to;
    • she believed that a ‘crisis without borders‘ could not be resolved by reinstating these internal frontiers;
    • she regretted that this had been the exact action which certain MS had initially taken;
    • she believed that it made little sense, as not a single MS could meet its own needs as regards medical equipment;
    • the free movement of goods and services was Europe’s most valued asset to ensure that supplies could go where they were most needed;
    • she felt that it had made no sense for MS to have halted exports of PPE to each other;
    • border measures needed to ensure that the freedom of movement of goods were maintained, and she specified that border crossings should take no more than 15 minutes so that shortages could be avoided;
    • she had been pained to have had to step in in this matter, but she believed that these interventions were beginning to bear fruitful results;
  • she believed that the measures taken reflected the unprecedented scale of the crisis;
  • citizens were watching for what measures would be taken, and they were watching to see what would happen when the crisis was over;
    • she acknowledged that some people faced uncertainty about what job they were returning to, what the future of their business would be, what would happen to their savings and mortgages;
    • they would understand that difficult decisions had had to be taken, but they would also remember who supported them through this and who did not;
    • they would remember who acted and who had not, and which actions were taken and which were not;
    • the EU needed to be there for those who needed it;
  • she recalled the launching of the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative to help direct EUR 37 billion to mitigate the impact of the crisis in terms of jobs and businesses;
    • the most flexible ever rules on state aid had also been adopted for MS to offer lifelines to business;
    • for the first time, the ‘general escape clause‘ of the Stability and Growth Pact had been activated to allow for as much firepower as possible to support those out of work, and businesses small and large;
  • she believed that this would be the Europe which citizens would remember when all of this was over, a Europe which was present, sympathetic and of rapid action in times of emergency, and acting in an unselfish manner;
  • she recalled that Europe had been founded out of the ashes of World War Two, where the memory of the harm caused by nationalistic actions was still fresh;
    • from mutual trust would come strength;
    • this community had been created for peace, but the basic values of the EU were now being tested;
    • MS had to rely on each other and support each other through these difficult times;
    • she recognised that lessons would be learnt from this pandemic, in shaping what kind of Europe would be sought after in the future;
    • she believed that the focus should not be on ‘more or less Europe‘, but rather how to cooperate to manage the next crisis in an even better fashion, as everyone was affected no matter where in Europe they were;
    • the actions taken today would be remembered in the years and decades to come;
  • she believed that this was a turning point, and that this pandemic would shape the vision for the future of Europe;
    • there were reasons to be confident about the future of Europe, and she was willing to take all actions to combat this crisis;
  • she quoted Konrad Adenauer that ‘history is the sum of those things that you could have avoided‘;
  • she called for action stemming from one European heart rather than 27 individual hearts.

David-Maria Sassoli (S&D, IT)

  • he informed that there would be no statement from the Council of the EU as a representative was unable to be present for this plenary session;
  • instead, a written statement had been submitted by the Presidency which would be circulated to MEPs.

Esteban González Pons (EPP, ES)

  • he welcomed the resolution to take action, such as the joint procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • he believed that the EU should go further in the short-term, as it needed to ensure healthcare resources and the movement of medical items across borders;
  • he believed that no one should be left behind, and that pensions and salaries should be guaranteed, as well as securing the functioning of European services, both physical and digital;
  • industrial production for medical equipment needed to be stepped up and the economic impact needed to be addressed;
    • SMEs, primary industry workers etc. needed to be supported;
  • the Italians and Spanish were asking where Europe was in this time of crisis;
    • he noted that it appeared to be considered ‘unfair’ to criticise national governments, but that the EU was vulnerable to criticism as if the Commission did not also form a part of European governance;
    • he believed that the Commission was doing its utmost pursuant to its remit, and recalled that no national government had asked the Commission to act outside of the scope granted to it by the Treaties;
    • MS had provided 27 differing responses to the crisis, as though the virus stopped at borders;
    • he believed that solidarity and the European spirit were what was failing, and not the EU itself;
    • the World Health Organisation (WHO) had categorised the virus as a pandemic, but EU governments were treating it as though it was 27 different regional infections;
    • the pandemic was causing havoc in Spain, Italy and France but there was uncertainty regarding its re-emergence in the colder months after summertime, or how the virus would continue to evolve on a global scale;
  • solidarity given today would be received again tomorrow, he believed that this was what was meant by ‘Europe’;
  • he believed that there were ‘two Europe’s’ currently, the one which the Council was convening and the one which applauded healthcare workers from their balconies;
    • this was the Europe which was needed, the same language of applause and gratitude spoken from every balcony;
    • he called the European Parliament the ‘house of hope‘;
    • he noted that Spain had more deaths than China despite having a far smaller population than China;
    • health workers were catching the virus themselves, patients were dying alone and hospitals were overwhelmed;
    • doctors were not asking for medals or processions, they were asking for healthcare equipment to ensure dignity and safety;
    • he was frustrated that these were not being shared across the MS;
  • he recalled that the generation of the founding fathers of the EU whom were suffering the most from this virus, the same generation which had returned democracy to Spain and Portugal, and had turned countries away from the French Franc and the Deutsche Mark towards the Euro.

Javier Moreno Sánchez (S&D, ES)

  • he acknowledged the strangeness of the situation, with an almost-empty chamber for this plenary session;
  • he dedicated his words to all whom had lost their lives, and their loved ones;
  • he wanted to continue applauding healthcare workers from balconies and expressed his gratitude to those citizens in essential services who were trying to keep normal life going as much as possible;
  • a joint strategy was needed to cope with evolving developments, and the first step to ensuring a positive future for Europe needed to be taken within the EU;
  • he believed that citizens wanted a coordinated community response to boost health services and guarantee equipment and food supplies;
    • he believed these citizens wanted the EU to provide a response to those governments whose unilateral actions were adversely affecting their neighbours;
    • workers were worried about their jobs;
  •  he recalled that the Parliament would be voting on an urgent package of measures which would guarantee that funds from the budget would be available to MS to act in flexible ways to help the worst-affected regions;
    • he also noted that the EU would suspend the rules on the allocation of slots at airports to address the issue of ‘ghost flights’ which he believed were damaging;
    • he further noted that the EU would be relaxing the Stability and Growth Pact measures to help MS, and look to jointly purchase health equipment to fight the pandemic;
  • more ambitious measures were needed regarding fiscal policy to ensure social solidarity;
    • EU leaders and the Commission had been asked to approve a plan with 25 urgent measures to fight the social and economic crisis presented by the spread of COVID-19;
    • he believed that this was a roadmap which would leave nobody behind;
  • he called for a new common European Investment Marshall Plan covered by European debt instruments, such as Eurobonds and a specific credit line made available without macroeconomic conditions;
  • he wanted to see a European Unemployment Fund combined with a fund for minimum salaries to protect all workers, particularly those in the agriculture and fisheries industries;
  • he wanted better coordination and information-exchanges between MS regarding travel restrictions and border closures;
  • he wanted to move out of this productive and economic hibernation without losing business and jobs en route.

Dominique Riquet (RE, FR)

  • he was expressing his opinions at this plenary as a doctor as well as an MEP;
  • if Europe constituted economic and monetary solidarity, then it was important to also show this in the health sector;
  • he condemned the lack of solidarity shown, where nationalism did not help as the virus did not respect borders;
  • he encouraged the emergency measures to be adopted without any amendments, so that support could be provided as soon as possible;
  • a suspension of the 8020 rules would help to avoid the ghost flights, affecting the environment with unnecessary emissions;
  • he called for all supply chains to be supported, and for all forms of transport to allow populations to receive supplies and allow healthcare staff to fight the pandemic;
    • social stability also had to be ensured, facilitated and bolstered;
  • he hoped that all Europeans would remember that what did not kill them would only make them stronger.

Nicolas Bay (ID, FR)

  • he believed that the EU institutions had failed ‘spectacularly’;
  • he believed that many citizens saw the EU not as a supermarket, but as a ‘super-state’, believing that the EU would be more able to respond to great crises than the MS;
    • however, here was a great crisis and he believed that the EU was ‘absent’;
    • information had been available to analyse since December;
    • President Von der Leyen had ‘admitted’ to underestimating the crisis, and that this had produced major risks for the vision of a globalised and open economy for the EU;
  • this stockpiling of masks etc. was being done too late, and he identified other issues such as that 85% of medicines’ ingredients in Europe came from China;
  • he believed that the freedom of movement had not been called into question early enough, and he recalled flights which had still been conducted between the EU and China later than they should have been;
    • contaminated people had been circulating too freely for too long;
    • President Von der Leyen had criticised the reintroduction of border controls, which he felt was in fact an ‘appropriate measure’;
    • the crisis had shown that European solidarity was simply ’empty words’;
    • the EU had been unable to coordinate the actions of MS, and only MS should be the ones to act, albeit with delays and problems;
    • he compared the situation to the ‘invasion’ of migrants that had been launched by Turkey, whereby Greece had been left on its own;
  • he said that Russia, China and Switzerland were helping Italy but that the EU was not;
    • he believed that the EU had simply continued discussions with the ‘Mafia-based Muslim state, Albania‘;
    • he warned that ‘history would judge‘ these actions;
  • he believed that COVID-19 could be the nail in the EU’s coffin.

Ska Keller (Greens/EFA, DE)

  • her sympathy was with the victims and their loved ones;
  • her gratitude was with those on the frontline such as the medical staff, and those who were working to ensure the continued functioning of EU economies and societies;
  • the crisis had made clear how reliant economies were on ‘overworked’ staff in shops and hospitals;
    • she believed that the EU should thank them by improving their pay and working conditions;
  • in times of crisis, solidarity was needed among neighbours, citizens and MS;
  • she recalled how the opposite had held true at first, citing the delays at border crossings and export bans on personal protective equipment (PPE);
    • she welcomed that this had changed, whereby countries were sending help to each other and coordinating more;
    • she believed that this was what solidarity looked like;
    • solidarity could not stop at EU borders, and she believed that technical and financial assistance needed to be provided to the countries seeking to join the EU;
    • she believed that the EU should stand in solidarity with the Western Balkans;
  • the EU could and should take action by coordinating response actions and pooling best practices in supporting those groups most affected;
    • the functioning of the single market should reflect these efforts, to ensure that medical supplies and food could move freely across borders;
  •  she recognised that the economic consequences would be ‘heavy’ and believed that countries should work together to mitigate the economic devastation;
    • she believed that measures needed to be taken to aid those who had lost their jobs, citing the idea of ‘corona-bonds’ so that MS could get back on their feet;
  • extraordinary times required extraordinary measures and she accepted the need for restrictions to be put in place;
    • however, she believed that these restrictions should be as limited as possible and that these should be effective, necessary and proportionate;
  • she stressed the importance of the crisis not providing a pretext for the erosion of democratic life, and emphasised that governments should remain accountable;
    • she believed that governments had a responsibility to not forget the most vulnerable groups such as women and children whom were not safe at home, the homelessness, refugees in overcrowded facilities etc.;
    • she was particularly concerned at the impact of the virus in overcrowded refugee camps such as were found on the Greek islands, with little access to sanitation facilities or medical care;
    • she believed that these needed to be evacuated immediately before the humanitarian situation became disastrous;
    • she believed that people around Europe were ready to accommodate these refugees;
  • she reiterated that solidarity would be the only way to resolve this crisis;
    • once the initial threat had died down, attention would need to turn to the economy to help it recover from this shock;
    • an investment plan geared towards the social and ecological transition would be required;
    • lessons would need to be drawn and future consequences would need to be looked at;
    • some lessons were already being felt, such as the acknowledgement of the vital work conducted by cleaners, supermarket workers etc.;
    • she believed that they needed to be justly paid, not just applauded to from balconies every night;
  • she said that health systems should not be subject to austerity, because everyone depended on doctors and nurses;
    • she came from a family of medical tradition, and so she understood the pressure behind the PPE they wore;
  • this crisis had shown a growing common spirit in European citizens, whom were all mourning victims and all applauding essential workers.

Derk Jan Eppink (ECR, NL)

  • he welcomed the emergency package of almost EUR 40 billion;
  • he called for ‘pragmatism first’;
    • he believed that the MFF should be restructured, and that money intended for climate policy should be redistributed to fighting the coronavirus;
  • on ‘Eurobonds’/’corona-bonds’ through the European Stability Mechanism, he did not believe that these would be effective in revitalising the European economy;
    • setting up mutualised bonds for monetary financing of national debt would require the overcoming of significant hurdles;
    • he reminded that in Germany, transfers would require the consent of the Bundestag;
  • companies and people needed cash urgently, and he recommended encouraging banks to provide credit at a 0% interest rate;
    • bonds went to banks but Europeans needed credit to go to their businesses;
  • he believed that that the EU had been too late in taking action, and he reprimanded the EU’s criticism of the US in halting its transatlantic aviation routes when it had then proceeded to do the exact same;
  • lessons would be learnt from this, and he believed that Konrad Adenauer would have been raising these same questions.

Manon Aubry (GUE/NGL, FR)

  • she believed that Europe was at a crossroads, whereby an overwhelming health crisis had hit, and an economic and social crisis was lurking;
  • the EU had boasted of European solidarity, but she was concerned that this had been cast aside and that the Union was at risk of collapse;
  • essential workers such as doctors and nurses were urgently calling out for PPE;
    • she believed that depending on the goodwill of the private sector was not enough;
    • she recalled that Italy had halted all non-essential production, while France was threatening the companies who wanted to stop their work;
    • those supplying, manufacturing and constructing still needed to work;
  • she was concerned at the differing responses among MS:
    • Spain had confirmed the idea of ‘collective immunity’;
    • Germany was following WHO guidelines;
    • others were simply waiting for these problems to arrive on their doorsteps;
  • she said that Mr Orbán had succeeded in clamping down with a deafening silence, while Czechia and Italy were fighting over the delivery of masks;
    • she did not believe that Europe was displaying unity in this moment;
    • common medical planning needed to be put in place, as well as clear guidelines and rules to keep people in confinement;
  • she believed that exit strategies needed to be looked at, as well as long-term solutions so that this crisis did not continue ‘bouncing around’ after the initial threat;
  • she thanked the REGI Committee in adopting the urgent measures, and also cited that putting the Stability and Growth Pact on pause was a satisfactory measure;
  • she believed that economic and monetary policy should serve citizens, not banks, and that a neoliberalism-manner of making money was the practical way forward.

Maroš Šefčovič, Commissioner for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight

  • he expressed his sympathy for all those affected by this health crisis, and thanked the doctors, nurses, police, soldiers, supermarket workers, and staff in other essential services for their work;
  • he also thanked the European Parliament for adapting to a system of remote voting so that crucial legislation could be adopted on behalf of European citizens;
  • he responded to Nicolas Bay saying that no one in the world had been prepared for this pandemic;
    • he believed that the EU had mobilised quickly and found a way to best share the responsibility;
    • he stressed that this was not a blame game, and that the MS simply had to work together;
  • he welcomed that the predominant tone of this plenary session had been on how to improve these efforts;
    • he stressed that the EU would do ‘whatever it took‘ to resolve this crisis;
  • concrete measures would show that the EU was operational and capable of responding to crises;
    • he recalled the need to map out how much of each medical equipment was required;
    • the joint procurement call for PPE had worked, and supplies would soon be redistributed to the MS;
    • it was estimated that 15,000 ventilators were needed for the next 3 months where only half of this was currently available;
    • the producers of this equipment had been involved in discussions with the Commission, and he assured that this crucial equipment would soon be made available;
  • if MS were not in a position to help due to their limited stockpiling, this could be mitigated by having a European stockpiled supply, which would be under the EU’s jurisdiction, so that export bans could not impede the delivery of equipment to the MS whom needed it most;
  • he recalled that the Commission was working in two strands:
    • on the health aspects;
    • and on the economic aspects which would be here for a longer-term;
  • sensitive medical equipment needed to be manufactured here in Europe so as to reduce dependency on imports from third countries and he hoped to see actions taken to assure this autonomy in the coming months;
  • the macroeconomic situation needed to be looked at, with a focus on ensuring enough liquidity for financial systems;
    • he agreed that cash should be going to businesses and not banks, so as to protect jobs and ensure operational continuity;
    • he was working to ensure that as few people as possible would lose their jobs as a result of this crisis;
  • he acknowledged the calls for the ‘bazooka’ use of the European Central Bank’s funds, and noted that other programmes had been offered on top of the ECB’s contribution, amounting to EUR 1 trillion;
  • the Commission was working closely with the European Investment Bank (EIB), which was developing a programme of EUR 200 billion worth of loans aimed at SMEs, which he recalled constituted the major source of employment in the EU;
  • he encouraged the governments of central and eastern MS to discuss their actions with the Commission;
    • along with Commissioner Vestager, legal state aid had already been approved;
    • the Commission had schemes at the ready for these countries;
  • on vaccines and response teams’ actions, there had already been a mobilisation of funds;
    • he recalled the comments made earlier by President Von der Leyen in chairing the scientific expert group bi-weekly, where the development of vaccines was discussed;
  •  he put emphasis on protecting critical industry in these ‘roller-coaster’ times, and assured that the Commission would not allow hostile takeovers to happen;
  • he recalled his previous intervention in the European Parliament’s plenary session on the MFF, and he agreed with Derk Jan Eppink that now was the time to find an agreement on the MFF so that MS had some financial perspective for the upcoming seven-year period to plan for Europe’s recovery and therefore better address emergencies;
    • he reminded that this was the final year of the EU’s budgetary cycle, and financial constraints greatly limited the actions which could be taken to tackle the coronavirus and the economic problems which would follow;
  • he concluded by emphasising that history would teach that the best responses were prepared during the crisis;
    • the daily management needed attention to ensure there would be as few victims as possible;
    • the EU needed to examine how Europe and the world would change as a result of this crisis;
    • his position focused on the foresight aspect and he said he would be happy to continue sharing the developments in this area with the Parliament.

The simultaneous interpretation of debates provided by the EU institutions serves only to facilitate communication amongst the participants in the meeting. It does not constitute an authentic record of proceedings. One Policy Place uses these translations so this text is only a guide and should not be relied on as an official account of the meeting. Only the original speech or the revised written translation of that speech is authentic.

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