2 years ago

20 years of European journalism & history

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Twenty years doesn't seem a lot. Certainly not in the light of European history. But while we were writing this magazine for the 20th anniversary of EUobserver, we were surprised just how much happened in the European Union in those two decades.

As a result, some member

As a result, some member states introduced unilateral measures, such as export bans on some medical supplies or the closure of borders - revealing a glaring lack of European solidarity during the first months of the pandemic. In a quick U-turn after these dark early days, EU countries started sharing medical equipment and doctors with other member states, jointly repatriating EU citizens from third countries and assisting neighbouring countries financially. "EU leaders took some decisions that were not really in line with the European perspective," the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, told EUobserver, referring to the export bans of certain medical gear seen in Germany, France, and the Czech Republic back in March. Without (yet) a safe and efficient Covid-19 vaccine, member states have been following two main strategies to fight the virus: imposing very restrictive measures (with massive socio-economic effects), such as lockdowns, and trying to keep the virus under control by testing, tracing and isolating. "At the beginning, some countries thought that it was possible to win the battle against the virus at the national level. But in only a few days, they all understood that this was not the right approach and more cooperation was needed," Michel added. "This is a permanent battle," Michel said, adding that the pandemic has revealed a need to increase the responsibilities of the EU in the healthcare sector. 'This is a permanent battle,' warned Charles Michel, president of the European Council - adding the pandemic has revealed the need to increase the role of the EU in healthcare Photo: European Commission 42 — EUOBSERVER ANNIVERSARY 2020

"Now, there is more political will to work towards the European level [in the healthcare sector] - but aiming to have one European model for health systems is not realistic," he added. While the global understanding about this new respiratory disease has steadily increased since the first outbreaks, how effectively Europe is responding to the current much-feared second wave of Covid-19 remains unclear - especially amid fears over 'vaccine nationalism', or the seizing of the first batches of doses by richer states that can pay the most or the quickest. Meanwhile, the burden on healthcare systems all across the bloc, as a result of the surge in coronavirus infections, has triggered new nationwide lockdowns and restrictive measures in nearly all EU member states. However, the second wave has also brought fresh hopes for an effective vaccine. "Next year, we will probably have a vaccine, or several vaccines, for Covid-19, but it is quite certain that vaccination will take time, so now the priority is to make more progress in testing, tracing, and isolation while improving crossborder cooperation," said Michel. The European Commission, on behalf of member states, has signed deals with companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK and Johnson & Johnson for their potential Covid-19 vaccines, while also negotiating with other pharmaceutical firms. But EU leaders still have to agree on common criteria for the deployment of the vaccines (when a safe and effective shot is available), to ensure a fair distribution of vaccines both within the EU and beyond. "This is an issue of concern. We need to work on this strategy in order to avoid a political battle in the next months that will make Europe look ridiculous," Michel warned. There is an opportunity to make Europe stronger, "if we find the way to tackle the question of vaccines together," the Belgian politician added. "Nevertheless, it is clear that even if we solve the problem of Covid-19 in some countries in the world, it will never be solved until we make sure that all over the world we can keep the virus under control," he made clear. The pandemic, meanwhile, has also increased ongoing tensions between China and the US, resulting in a new geopolitical environment in which the role of the EU is still to be finally determined. However, for the European Council president, the EU now has the opportunity to develop a so-called "strategic autonomy," transforming the bloc's economic and social model to make Europe "less dependent [on third countries] and more influential" in the global context. "We want an open economy with international exchanges, but we need to rebalance the international relationships taking into consideration more fairness, and [a] level playing field," he added. In its history, the EU has survived many crises and, undoubtedly, it will also survive the negative socio-economic consequences of Covid-19. However, a key question remains: will the EU be able to establish timely 'solidarity' responses to future crises, in the face of such large-scale disruptions to life and economies? 43 — EUOBSERVER ANNIVERSARY 2020

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