In it together | Helena Grech

This is really the time for unity, notwithstanding any initial hiccups at the start of such an unprecedented challenge

EC president Ursula von der Leyen, Council president Charles Michel, and EP President David Sassoli
EC president Ursula von der Leyen, Council president Charles Michel, and EP President David Sassoli

Crises are frequently indiscriminate in the way they come upon us and affect us. Whilst some can be foreseen and tackled with appropriate preparations and reparatory measures, others take us completely by surprise and threaten to overwhelm us, as is the case of this epochal pandemic we are currently trying to tackle. The sheer dimension of this situation thus means that this is not the time for individualism, but the moment where ‘we’ becomes more important than ‘I’.

We are all in this together: an epic health crisis that calls for unity and common solutions in order to stem, as rapidly as possible, the spread of this deadly, invisible enemy that has changed our lifestyles overnight.

Commission President von der Leyen put this perfectly in her speech at the European Parliament last Thursday. In her intervention on the European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak, she remarked that when Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves, due to the differing situations in each country. The situation precipitated rapidly throughout Europe and Member States started feeling the consequences of their own uncoordinated actions. This is why, over the last few weeks, the European Union has taken exceptional and extraordinary measures to coordinate and enable the strategies and initiatives required.

The scale of the outbreak, and the bottlenecks that ensued with regard to the delivery of crucial supplies and equipment as states closed their borders, meant that the EU had to act fast. It is therefore creating the first ever European stockpile of medical equipment, such as ventilators, masks and lab supplies, with the Commission financing 90% of the costs through RescEU. This is also why several joint procurements with Member States – 25 participating – were launched for the purchase of testing kits, ventilators and protective equipment. Their demands for masks, gloves, goggles, face-shields have been matched by the producers, and the first deliveries should start in the coming weeks.

At the same time, because knowledge saves lives in a pandemic, the Commission has set up a European team of scientific experts to help come up with coordinated measures that all can follow. We want to help everyone help themselves, and continue stepping up our actions: European citizens and the world are watching us, and we will stop at nothing to save lives, even in this unprecedented situation where our healthcare professionals, who are putting so much at risk on the frontline, and who are amongst the best in the world, are stretched to breaking point by the extent of the pandemic. In the words of President Von der Leyen, Europe owes you all a debt of gratitude.

Underpinning these actions is our fully functioning Single Market. Europe has ensured that essential freight transport for critical merchandise and food supplies can pass through ‘green lanes’ across all the Union’s borders, in order to ensure minimal delays and guarantee provisions and continuity of essential supplies for our citizens. The Internal Market is already functioning better, and this goes beyond trade and commerce, but can also be witnessed in the solidarity between countries treating and healing patients across borders – Italian patients from Bergamo were amongst the first to be transferred to the German University hospital in Leipzig. The EU Emergency Response Coordination Centre is also working 24/7 to support the repatriation flights for EU citizens stranded abroad because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Member States will always be on the frontline: even here in Malta, we witness daily the dedication of our health workers and authorities who are guiding us through the uncharted territory caused by the pandemic’s rapid spread. The European Commission keeps on playing a key coordination role and issues recommendations for a common course of action in many areas, including public health, transport, border controls, internal market and trade.

An unprecedented crisis thus calls for unprecedented measures. The Commission has also relaxed State Aid rules in order to allow Member States to manage their finances accordingly to cater for the emergency back home, which has impacted employment and the general economy for the short to medium term. Beyond this new flexibility, the Commission has also proposed a Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative providing €37 billion of investment under cohesion policy to address the consequences of the crisis. With the proposed amendment to the EU Solidarity Fund, that Fund can also be used for public health emergency situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

All hands are on deck. This week’s European Council meeting has also set its main priorities for the period which include limiting the spread of the virus, providing medical equipment and promoting research (including into a vaccine) and tackling the inevitable socio-economic consequences of this pandemic.

This is really the time for unity, notwithstanding any initial hiccups at the start of such an unprecedented challenge.

I’ll once again quote President von der Leyen who summarised the spirit of this concerted action when closing last Thursday’s speech to the Parliament Plenary: history is now looking at us. Let us do the right thing together – with one big heart, rather than 27 small ones.

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