A Fireside Chat With Margaritis Schinas, European Commission Vice-President

The dominant narrative of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is probably that the West in general and the European Union in particular have been way too slow and inefficient in supporting friends, allies, and member states. Whereas, China and Russia are seen to have responded speedily and effectively, in particular delivering much-needed masks, rapid tests, and health equipment. CEPA’s fireside chat this week was with Margaritis Schinas, whose dossier is entitled “Promoting our European Way of Life.” He was in discussion with CEPA president Dr. Alina Polyakova.

Condensed and paraphrased for clarity, here are the takeaways from the discussion.

The EU’s financial support has the potential to mitigate the economic effects of the crisis. Indications that Brussels is taking its responsibilities seriously are: the European Central Bank’s approval for a €700bn financial ($765bn) package, an additional €100bn from the European Investment Bank to provide support for the unemployed, and a third financial injection that is under discussion.

Nobody is bidding farewell to passport-free travel or is planning to restore nation-state borders. Freedom of movement is the crown jewel of the European way of life, both as its most important symbol and as something of very tangible value for every citizen. The temporary closure of the EU’s borders, internal and external, do not fundamentally compromise the underlying values of the European project.

Some member states have taken more extreme measures than others; making special demands of the executive power. But these should not be introduced without deadlines for their review and removal. Parliaments must activate — and end — these measures. The unanimous agreement among the member states is that these measures make sense only if they are rooted in European democratic values and human rights.

The aggressive malign misinformation campaigns by Russia and China targeted against European countries and institutions have one common denominator: their real targets are European values and all Europeans should act together in their defense. Brussels may be seen as a soft target and there is a tendency in some capitals to assume that when Brussels is targeted it is a problem

A key lesson of the crisis that the EU and the United States need to act together as part of a global response. Meetings such as the G7 or the G20 must result in common operations and decisions, not just declarations. A pledging conference will be organized soon to curb the effects of the crisis in the most vulnerable parts of the world such as Africa or Latin America.

Defense and security remain as relevant as before. The pandemic will not change the fundamental need to maintain a strong defense system. NATO will remain in the heart of it, but an emerging European defense identity may become an important part of it.

Crises have always been the best cure for Europe’s worst enemy, its complacency. Europe has long suffered from inaction and stagnation when there was no crisis. Crises have forced decision-makers, politicians, and society to realize that they need to do more together.

The EU’s place in the world will have to change. Another key lesson of the current crisis is that Europe will start to gravitate from the notion of transition — as in transition to the digital economy — toward the notion of resilience. Europeans after the crisis will have to see the priority of resilience in social as well as political terms.

The most important message of the crisis is on the global level. Humanity is together in this pandemic and we are all in the same boat: either we swim collectively or we sink individually.

Photo: “European Commission Flags” from LIBER Europe under CC 2.0 via Flickr. 

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Réka Szemerkényi

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April 9, 2020

Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.