What are the leaders of the EU member states doing?
Since the start of the pandemic, EU leaders have been in close touch with one another. Since the number of cases across the EU began to rise again significantly in autumn, the heads of state and government have resumed their regular video conferences and closely coordinated their response. The focus is both on slowing the spread of the virus and on mitigating economic consequences for EU member states.
On 10 December 2020, the European Council cleared the way for the final steps towards the adoption of the Next Generation recovery fund worth 750 billion euro. These urgently needed funds for the EU’s economic and social recovery during and after the COVID-19 pandemic are set to be disbursed as quickly as possible.
What is the job of the European Commission during the crisis?
It is important to realise that the European Commission has limited authority in the health sector. Basically, every member state is responsible for organising and financing its own health system.
The main job of the European Commission is to help member states weather the crisis and make recommendations for joint action. It has done much to coordinate the actions of member states during the crisis, e.g. in the fields of public health, transport, border protection, the internal market and trade. The aim was to coordinate actions and ensure that the virus could be fought as effectively as possible. The European Commission works with businesses and member states to improve supplies of medical equipment (including protective equipment) throughout Europe. And the Commission has drawn up a road map for the gradual easing of restrictions so as to enable member states to take a coordinated approach.
What is the EU doing in the field of mobility?
Limiting the spread of the virus
- On 15 June 2020, the European Commission’s Re-Open EU website went live. It offers all EU travellers updated information on border regulations, transport, travel restrictions, and public health and safety measures (e.g. distancing and mandatory face masks) as well as other practical tips for the individual member states. Since October there has also been a map of the entire EU with standardised color codes - green, orange, red – based on commonly agreed criteria. The information on Re-Open EU is now also available as an app.
- Mobility in Europe is becoming safer: in mid-October, the European Commission launched an EU-wide system for the interoperability of contact tracing and warning apps. The German COVID-19 warning app now also shows potentially risky encounters with users of Danish, Irish, Italian, Croatian, Latvian, Dutch, Polish, Slovenian and Spanish COVID-19 warning apps. The network will soon be expanded to additional countries' apps.
- In view of the improving health situation in the EU, on 11 June the European Commission recommended that member states lift travel restrictions within the EU as of 15 June 2020.
- The European Commission has - as it did at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic - presented guidelines for restricting non-essential travel from non-EU countries to the EU.
Member states can refuse applicants a short-term visa and visa holders may be refused the right to enter the Schengen Area where this is deemed to constitute a threat to public health. This measure is laid out in the Schengen Borders Code and is one of the conditions on which short-term visas are issued.
Citizens stranded in third countries
In March, the European Council undertook to ensure coordination between its embassies and the EU delegations in third countries. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, member states have organised a huge number of flights to bring over 520,000 people back to Europe. In addition, the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism has helped bring almost 60,000 EU citizens home from around the world.
What is the EU doing in the health system?
During the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission has been supporting the health systems of EU member states. It mobilises funding and takes steps to ensure a supply of medical materials, in particular the planned vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and protective gloves, but also drugs, ventilators and other medical supplies.
Supply of vaccines
On 21 December 2020, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved BioNTech-Pfizer's vaccine. The EU states will begin vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus on 27 December 2020.
- A vaccine strategy proposed in June by the European Commission aims to facilitate access to a safe and effective vaccine as swiftly as possible. Sufficient production of vaccines for all EU member states is to be ensured.
- The European Commission has already negotiated deals with several vaccine manufacturers. Contracts with pharmaceutical companies BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna, for example, have secured up to 300 million and 160 million vaccine doses, respectively, of the two most promising COVID-19 vaccines for EU member states.
- In addition, the EU Commission issued recommendations in October on who to vaccinate first, how to achieve equitable distribution and how to protect the most vulnerable.
- The European Union is pooling forces with global partners. On 4 May 2020, the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative was launched. By June, the pledging event had brought together a total of 15.9 billion euro, which is to be used to make COVID-19 treatment, tests and vaccines available worldwide.
Supply of medical products
- EU leaders have endorsed a European Commission recommendation on testing strategies. The Emergency Support Instrument will provide 100 million euro for the purchase and use of rapid antigen tests across the EU. At the same time, the Commission is launching a joint procurement procedure.
- The European Commission has signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company Gilead to secure treatment doses of Veklury, the brand name for Remdesivir. Remdesivir is the first drug authorised at EU level to treat COVID-19. With the coordination and support of the Commission, member states and the United Kingdom took delivery of the first batches of the drug at the beginning of August to meet their urgent needs.
- In response to a proposal of the European Commission, the European Union is building a strategic stock of medical equipment. Under the rescEU reserve, ventilators and protective face masks are being procured. The medical materials are to be used in those EU states where it is most urgently needed. The EU is providing 380 million euro for this.
- The EU Solidarity for Health Initiative has around 6 billion euro at its disposal. It supports the health systems in EU member states directly. The emergency aid is designed to help finance and coordinate the transport of medical equipment and patients, recruit additional medical staff and put up mobile hospitals.
- European public procurement regulations offer great flexibility in emergencies. Urgently needed medical goods can be purchased within days or even hours. The European Commission has published guidelines explaining in detail how public procurement contracts can be placed swiftly in compliance with regulations.
- The European Commission has temporarily exempted imports of medical products from non-EU member states from customs duties and value added tax, easing the financial burden of supplying doctors, nursing staff and patients with urgently needed medical equipment.
What is the EU doing in the field of research?
The European Commission is supporting research and development work on vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems to address the coronavirus. These are to be provided to everyone who needs them. This requires scientists to share knowledge and information across national borders. To this end, the European Commission has launched a number of different measures.
The European Commission is using its research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, to mobilise over 1 billion euro:
- 450 million euro for the development of COVID-19 treatment, tests and vaccines
- 400 million euro in guarantees for European Investment Bank (EIB) loans to fund COVID-19 research and development at an early stage (including industrial-scale production)
- 150 million euro for disruptive innovations to address the pandemic within the scope of the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator.
European COVID-19 data platform
The new European data platform aims to bring together available research data swiftly and to use it jointly. Research scientists can store a lot of new findings about COVID-19 centrally, share information and analyse the data.
The data platform is part of the Commission’s ERAvsCorona Action Plan. It aims to achieve close coordination, cooperation and joint financing efforts on the parts of the Commission and member states.
Team of experts
On 17 March, the European Commission assigned a team of experts on COVID-19. The epidemiologists and virologists from various EU states were to elaborate EU guidelines for risk management that were scientifically well founded and provided for coordinated action. On the basis of scientific reports produced by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) and the Commission’s team of experts, initial recommendations for common measures and testing strategies were published on 19 March. On 30 March, these were followed by recommendations regarding the resilience of health systems.
From Germany, Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute and Christian Drosten, Head of the Virology Institute at Berlin’s Charité Hospital are members of the advisory panel.
EU database for COVID-19 research (German only)
What is the EU doing for the economy?
The German government is in constant contact with the European Commission and the governments of EU member states in order to coordinate economic measures.
Recovery plan for the economy
For the recovery phase, following the acute effort to combat the pandemic, a recovery fund is needed. From 17 to 21 July, a special meeting of the European Council hammered out the form this should take. The 27 EU leaders agreed on the Next Generation EU recovery instrument. It is worth 750 billion euro and is part of the reworked EU budget. 390 billion euro are to be made available to particularly hard hit member states as grants, and 360 billion euro as loans. The agreement also contains a clear commitment to respect the rule of law and protect the financial interests of the EU and its member states.
With the agreement between the negotiators from the EU Council and the European Parliament on 10 November, an important hurdle was cleared, before the ratification of the package. At the European Council meeting on 10 December, the way was further cleared for the last steps towards the ratification of the packet. Shortly afterwards, the European Parliament also gave their vote for it. The recovery instrument, Next Generation EU, still has to be agreed upon by national parliaments. This is unlikely to happen before the start of 2021.
The EU finance ministers had already put together a package of measures with a total volume of over 500 billion euros on 9 April. This aid programme is based on three safety nets that were subsequently approved by EU leaders on 23 April 2020 at a meeting of the European Council in the form of a video conference:
1. Safety net for business. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is to provide large-scale support for small and medium businesses to help them finance immediate commitments.
2. Safety net for workers. A Europe-wide instrument to finance short-term work was to be created (SURE, Support mitigating Unemployment Risks in Emergency).
3. Safety net for member states in particular need, provided by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which was put in place following the financial crisis in 2007/08.
To help individuals and the economy, the Commission had already taken extensive emergency measures:
- Under the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, the European Commission provided a total of 37 billion euro in liquidity assistance for the regions, within the scope of the EU structural fund.
- This was supplemented by a package of measures of the European Investment Bank to mobilise financing up to a value of 40 billion euro.
- The European Commission applies EU budget regulations flexibly, so that EU member states can spend what is required to fight the crisis.
- The European Commission opened the European Union Solidarity Fund for the COVID-19 crisis, giving the worst affected member states access to additional support worth up to 800 million euro. The European Union Solidarity Fund can now be used not only in the case of natural disasters, but also for public health emergencies.
- The European Commission passed a limited-term framework on state aid which makes it easier for member states to support businesses with grants, loans and guarantees.
- The European Central Bank launched the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) worth 750 billion euro, which is to address the economic consequences of the pandemic.