Director at CONCORD Europe
I have a sense of “déjà vu”: something about today’s situation feels as though we’ve been here before, not so long ago. The economic and financial fallout of the 2008-9 crisis left bitter memories of destroyed lives and livelihoods, and many worry we are now headed in a similar direction. But as governments prepare their economic recovery plans, they not only face a formidable challenge, but also an unprecedented opportunity.
In my last blog, I asked the question: “what would Europe do to support Africa and show partnership and solidarity, if the coronavirus spreads there as it has in Europe?” Well, quite coincidentally, the EU reacted just a few days later, releasing the Joint EC-EEAS Communication setting out “Team Europe’s” global response to COVID-19.
While the EU plays due lip service to its core values, such as the rule of law, human rights and gender equality, its global response is (also) guided by the fact that it is deemed to be in the EU’s “strategic interests” to support partner countries. These two approaches may not be mutually exclusive but an emphasis on ‘interests’ when set apart from the EU’s core values clearly shows that other interests are at stake here. However, solidarity should be shown for solidarity’s sake. Especially since the EU is keen to be making up for its earlier lack of solidarity with other European nations.
This “war against COVID-19” (to use French President Macron’s bellicose term) is not about winning visibility, kudos and brownie points. It’s about saving lives, strengthening our public health systems and beating a dangerous virus. As the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros, so rightly said back in 2017, “global health security is only as strong as its weakest link.” That means “no one is safe until we are all safe.”
So if the EU is serious when it says that “now is the time for international solidarity and leadership”, then the EU should target its support where it is needed most – that is, prioritising least developed countries, those countries most at risk and those least able to cope should the virus take hold. Clearly, the aim should be to ensure that the most marginalised people and countries are not left even further behind, given the strong likelihood that the pandemic will deepen already existing inequalities around the world.
And yet, no new EU funding has been made available to respond to the pandemic. The EU has put together a response package of €15.6 billion (€20bn if one includes Member State contributions) from within the existing EU budget. While this may seem a significant amount, the need in partner countries, especially less developed countries, is tremendous. Even if this package can be justified for the here and now, as soon as we enter the short- and medium-term, this will surely not suffice. And it certainly doesn’t come close to what a number of experts are suggesting might be needed. What’s more, of the €15.6 billion, only around €3.3 billion will be dedicated to interventions specifically addressing health challenges in partner countries and only €3.5 billion has been set aside for Sub-Saharan Africa, by comparison with €5.4 billion for the EU’s neighbourhood. So the allocations are not based on need. And they are definitely not based on consultation with partner countries (or local civil society).
Is this the kind of leadership the EU was hoping to showcase?
While difficult decisions do need to be made, extraordinary times need extraordinary solutions. Does the EU need to review its rules so that it can act in a truly appropriate manner when a crisis hits?
Looking further ahead in 2020, the urgency to finalise the negotiations of the EU’s seven-year budget is increasing, because there are now no ‘spare funds’ to tide the EU over from one budget period to the next should the negotiations stall or fail. Questions are being asked as to whether the EU will consider a special ‘corona recovery period’ – or a corona top-up fund. This could be an interim budget focused on getting us back on track, helping small and medium enterprises get back on their feet, people to regain their livelihoods and public services to recover. Or simply extra money dedicated to that. While it is clear that we do need an injection of money, of one sort or another, the terms and conditions of such an injection must be carefully thought through so that there are no negative repercussions for people further down the line.
Most particularly, I wouldn’t want to see a lot of short-term measures be put in place if it means we plaster over the cracks in the system, only to go back to business as usual in a year’s time. To paraphrase Chilean protesters, we mustn’t go back to ‘normal’, because ‘normal’ was the problem. European leaders need to seize this opportunity to consider all aspects of our economic and financial systems.
I would like the EU to re-analyse where its priorities lie and put adequate funds behind them over the medium and longer term. To completely rethink its budget – both the internal budget and its external assistance to partner countries. To design a gender-sensitive budget. EU money must be invested in protecting and strengthening public systems – in Europe and elsewhere – and in making sure that everyone has access to quality education, healthcare and social protection. It must be used to protect workers and consumers, wherever they are. And most particularly, it must result in far greater equality between people and countries. This may, indeed, require a significantly increased budget (or Multiannual Financial Framework). But we are only as strong as our weakest link…
Whatever happens, we can’t repeat what we did in 2008. This time around, we need to save lives and livelihoods. This time, we need thought leadership and courage to question our ways of working. This time, we need a just and sustainable economic recovery which benefits people and planet. We need to follow a path of sustainable development.