Amazing, how quickly we all forgot about the EU...

Where is all the ‘guidance’ that the European Health Commission is supposed to be providing?  And in what ways have the responses of Europe’s 27 member states been ‘aligned’ to any form of common (or, at least, coherent) public health strategy?

Tell you what: seeing as we’re all stuck indoors with nothing to do for the time being… let’s play a game. The rules are simple: I’ll mention a well-known public personality, of relevance to the ongoing coronavirus emergency; and you tell me the last time you heard that name reported in the local news. Ready? Let’s go…Stella Kyriakidou.

Huh? What do you mean, ‘who the hell is that?’ No, of course she’s not one of the alien races in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. She’s the European Commissioner for Health, for crying out loud. I mean… I did say ‘relevant to the crisis’, didn’t I? And how much more relevant can you possibly get, than the person responsible for the European Union’s policies and strategies regarding public health?

But no matter, let’s try someone else: Charmaine Gauci.

Ah, that’s more like it! Not only does everyone and his dog instantly recognise her as the public face of the Superintendence of Public Health - and applaud her for the extraordinary work she and her team are doing – but we all also remember exactly when we last saw her on the news. At the time of writing this article, it was roughly 10 seconds ago… when she announced the latest update on the spread of COVID-19 through Malta (and now Gozo, for the first time).

OK, I know what you’re probably thinking right now. It’s not exactly a fair comparison, is it? In times of a national health emergency, it is altogether understandable that we would rely on local sources of information to find out what’s happening in our own backyard. And besides: it is not the job of the Health Commission to monitor the local situation in each and every member state… that is clearly the responsibility of the local (as opposed to EU-level) health authorities.

Nonetheless, it does raise a small question. What, exactly, is the job of the EU’s Health Commission at a time like this?

Well, according to the Commission’s website: “The European Commission provides guidance and support measures across the EU […] Once a cross-border health threat is declared, as is the case for COVID-19, Member States should consult each other within the [Health Security Committee] and in coordination with the European Commission. The goal is to align national responses and crisis communication…”

And yes, I suppose it does sound all very well and good: until you look at how all the different EU countries are actually responding to the crisis, and realise that… erm… there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any ‘alignment of national responses’, does there?

Quite the contrary: each individual member state is clearly adopting whatever measures it feels appropriate, according to its own particular exigencies: i.e., exactly as we all used to do anyway, back in the days before the EU even existed.

And this wouldn’t even be so worrying, if there was any form of EU-wide consensus on how, effectively, to contain and control a nationwide epidemic. But as each member state announces its own strategy, what emerges is a glaring polarisation of scientific opinion along two diametrically opposed lines: ‘social distancing’, versus ‘herd immunity’.

Obviously, what follows has to be regarded as a gross over-simplification. But most European countries (Malta included) appear to be following the former model: which aims to minimise the spread of contagion by imposing strict limitations on social interactivity.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, seems to be following the example set previously by the United Kingdom: i.e., the ‘herd immunity’ approach, which involves allowing (even encouraging) a large percentage of the population to contract the virus, under controlled conditions, in a bid to build up national resistance against future resurgences.

That, at any rate, is my understanding of these two, wildly different approaches… and I won’t go into the merits of each for now (because that, quite frankly, is a job better left to each country’s individual health authorities).

But I suppose you can see where all this is going. It’s not exactly an easy decision for any country to take. So… where is all the ‘guidance’ that the European Health Commission is supposed to be providing?  And in what ways have the responses of Europe’s 27 member states been ‘aligned’ to any form of common (or, at least, coherent) public health strategy?

Only two possibilities appear to be visible at this stage: either there is no real co-ordination effort going on at Commission level right now; or there is, but each member state feels free to simply ignore it at will (note: for what it’s worth, I incline towards the second interpretation myself… for reasons which should become obvious later).

Either way, it all seems to reinforce an impression that we already got from our past experience of other crisis situations: the obvious example being immigration. As Former ALDE chairman Guy Verhofstadt – who is not exactly a Eurosceptic – put it this week: “It was already clear for a long time that when exceptional circumstances occur, the European Union can be pretty powerless”.

He also remarked quite bitterly on the irony that Europe’s worst-hit countries actually found more help from outside the EU, than within:  “Italy’s cry for help, to replenish something as basic as mouth masks, remained for weeks unanswered by all other European member states. It was China who rushed to help first…”

But there is another level at which the EU simply seems to ‘vanish away’ whenever there is an urgent, pressing crisis to be dealt with. For it’s not just a coherent, EU-wide health strategy that seems to be totally non-existent at the moment. All the official ‘rules and regulations’ we’ve grown accustomed to since joining in 2004 – on State Aid, for instance, or the free movement of people/goods/capital – have been unceremoniously jettisoned at the first symptoms of the pandemic.

From this perspective, it’s been rather amusing to watch Malta’s political parties wrangle over the government’s proposed measures to counter the economic aspect of the crisis. Robert Abela put together a package amounting to around 1.8 billion (mostly in the form of tax exemptions) to bail out private enterprises; and the social partners reacted by claiming that it is far from enough. Employers want government to finance 50% of private sector wages… and the Nationalist Party – i.e., the party that took us into Europe, and behaves for all the world as if it founded the EU itself - seems to be arguing that government should intervene at all levels: reducing utility bills, pumping money into ailing businesses, etc.

Erm… hate to interrupt the party, and all that, but… has it occurred to any of them that most (if not all) their proposals are actually illegal, under the terms of the Accession Treaty we all signed up to in 2004? And that some of them defy not only the EU’s regulations on state aid… but also the very principles upon which the EU was founded in the first place?

Freedom of movement, for instance. Since when can any EU member state unilaterally decide to close its own borders, even to other EU countries? For that, effectively, is what all those advocating a total lockdown are actually calling for. And it’s also what several EU member states are already doing – such as Germany, which has closed its frontiers with France, Austria and Switzerland; and Spain… which, apart from locking down, has even taken the extraordinary measure of nationalising all its private hospitals.

And yes, I am aware that the EU has already made special concessions in all these cases. On Friday morning, for instance, it was reported that: “The European Commission will allow EU member states full flexibility under state aid rules to support their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak”… and so on and so forth.

But the timing of that announcement was significant: coming, as it did, only AFTER practically all EU member states had already announced their own emergency measures (mainly consisting, as in Malta’s case, of the sort of actions that the EU would usually clamp down on through infringement procedures).

As such, the EU’s generous concession was actually unnecessary. Europe’s 27 member states had all pre-emptively decided to ignore the EU’s regulations anyway… without, it seems, asking for any permission beforehand. Indeed, they all clearly decided to map out their own policy direction, at all levels – health, economy, etc - without any input from Brussels at all.

And on its part, the EU was left with no other option but to acknowledge the reality of its own impotence… and to formalise the embarrassing situation by issuing the equivalent of a blanket amnesty to cover the duration of the crisis.

Ah, but what happens after that? When this crisis is over – for it will come to an end some day; hopefully sooner than we think – will we all be expected to simply return to the same old rules and regulations as before?

Will the EU (the same EU that simply vanished without a trace, the moment we needed it most), suddenly spring back into action with a vengeance: barking out orders about what each member state is permitted to do, or not to do… under a legal framework that we all now know simply dissolves into nothingness, the moment individual countries decide to collectively ignore it (i.e., every time there’s a crisis)?

Um…. yeah, probably. And let’s face it: it would be no more than we deserve…

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