Joint Oireachtas Committee on EU Affairs, Wednesday, 28 October 2020
Noelle O Connell, CEO of European Movement Ireland
Chairman, many thanks to you and the Committee for this invitation. In my first presentation to members since the election, I would like to wish you and all Committee members every success, particularly at this crucial juncture of Ireland’s EU relationship. Please be assured, as ever, of the ongoing engagement and support of your work by myself and all of my colleagues in European Movement Ireland. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to meet the committee this morning on the critical topic of the EU’s response to Covid – 19.
By way of background, since 1954, European Movement Ireland is Ireland’s longest established not for profit voluntary membership organisation working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe through debate, engagement, conversation, outreach and communication.
How has the EU responded to COVID-19?
What would be the EU’s report card to date? As we know, this virus respects no borders. Traditionally, the EU tended to fit crises into its entirely bureaucratic processes and treaty-based rules. In other words, it tried to adapt crises to its way of working, rather than adapting to the crisis at hand. “Brussels” and its related EU agencies have never been known for speed, more a marathon runner than a sprinter.
But after a slow start, team EU got into a stronger stride after late March, with regular policy initiatives to cope with the crisis, ranging from the repatriation of EU citizens abroad to protecting national health services from cyber-attacks, mass procurement of protective medical equipment and directing EU funding towards vaccine research. This Corona virus pandemic is not a normal crisis; we are now seeing the EU and member states attempt to co-ordinate their responses collectively against the backdrop more broadly of our committee meeting today taking place as Europe experiences a deadly second wave of the virus. As Committee members are no doubt aware, curfews, restrictions, and other measures are being implemented across Member States to help control the spread of Covid-19.
This public health crisis requires a shared sense of purpose, and equally a willingness by the EU, its institutions and member states to do new things. Just this past weekend, the EU has delivered ventilators and other medical supplies from its rescEU reserve to Czechia, after that country requested help through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, amid its rising number of coronavirus cases.
Coordinated by the European Commission, the rescEU reserve is where Member States pool medical supplies relevant to Covid-19, which can be drawn upon by other Member States if requested. It is a practical example of how the EU has played a vital, yet often under recognised, central role as the provider and coordinator of help to Member States, as they respond to COVID-19.
And we have seen during this year of Covid-19 that while the EU has introduced many measures to try and alleviate the impact of the virus on people in Europe, it is largely Member State governments who led the way with health policy remaining primarily a national competency by constituent member state national governments.
I would like to list a number of other EU measures – non exhaustive but they do provide a flavour of some of the coordinated initiatives taken by various EU institutions in their attempts to alleviate the impacts of this pandemic on EU citizens.
Take health care:
On 20 March, in the early days of the pandemic, the European Commission invited all Member States, as well as the UK, to lift customs duties and VAT on imports of necessary medical equipment during the crisis. This covered protective equipment, testing kits or medical devices such as ventilators in order to help make it easier financially for Member States to obtain this important equipment. Initially lasting to July of this year, it has now been extended to the end of October 2020.
The European Commission is leading the charge on behalf of Member States to secure safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations.
British company AstraZeneca is to provide 300 million doses, with an option for a further 100 million. This company may be better known as developing the ‘Oxford vaccine’, as has been widely reported in the media, with further welcome developments emerging last weekend about its potential results.
The European Commission has supported research to find effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, for which Ireland is playing a significant role.
Dublin-based firm PinTail is leading on the ‘Porsav’ project along with Palliare and UCD, with other partners in France and Poland. Its purpose is to develop technology to control viral aerosols in Covid-19 and other diseases.
Another example, Cork-based company BioPixs is part of a consortium of six other partners across Spain, Italy and the Netherlands that are developing a “portable platform for the assessment of micro–vascular health in covid-19 patients.’’
On the economy, significant measures have been introduced:
On Tuesday 20 October, for the first time in its history, the EU borrowed from the international monetary markets. In fact, the EU made history by attracting the highest ever demand recorded for a bond sale.
Investors placed bids for more than €233 billion, which far exceeded the original €17 billion worth of bonds on offer.
This sale is the first under the EU’s SURE programme for “Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency” (SURE) and is available for Member States that need to mobilise significant financial means to fight the negative economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Already, the Council of the EU has approved a total of €87.9 billion in financial support to 17 Member States, based on proposals from the European Commission. The first instalments, worth €17 billion overall, have been disbursed to Italy, Spain and Poland.
Elsewhere, EU finance ministers had agreed on 20 March to suspend the Stability and Growth Pact, demonstrating an early flexibility and determination to grapple with the economic challenges presented by the pandemic.
The Pact is a set of rules designed to ensure that Member States in the EU pursue sound public finances and coordinate their fiscal policies.
EU finance ministers had agreed with the European Commission in March, that the conditions for the use of the general escape clause of the Pact, that is, a severe economic downturn in the euro area or the Union as a whole, had been fulfilled as a result of Covid-19.
The European Central Bank decided in June increased the pandemic emergency purchase programme from €600 billion to €1.35 trillion. This was done in response to the downward revision of inflation at the time as a result of the pandemic.
By doing so, the ECB, stated that this “will further ease the general monetary policy stance, supporting funding conditions in the real economy, especially for businesses and households.’’ This purchasing programme will continue until June 2021 in its current format.
And in May, the European Investment Bank launched a €25 billion European Guarantee Fund, which is aimed to help businesses recover from the pandemic, hire employees and grow.
To further help Member States respond to the pandemic, in March the European Commission allowed for a temporary relaxation of state aid rules which facilitated Ireland on 7 April being able to designate €15 million in financial assistance for five strategic maritime roll-on/roll-off routes for a period of up to three months.
These routes included those operated by Irish Ferries from Dublin to Cherbourg and Rosslare-Europort to Pembroke; by Stena Line from Rosslare-Europort to Cherbourg and Fishguard; and by Brittany Ferries from Rosslare-Europort to Bilbao.
This is of course without even mentioning the €750 billion Next Generation EU agreement, which was widely reported on during the Summer.
And the EU has done so much more.
From repatriating over 82,000 EU citizen on flights from all over the world, including over 600 Irish people from the likes of India, Japan to Peru; to coordinating with Netflix who temporarily lowered video quality across Europe to reduce strain on internet service providers; to working with Member States to keep trade moving across borders by introducing green lanes at border crossings; the EU has been that all important coordinator between and for Member States as they attempted to grapple with this pandemic.
Take for example air travel.
As an island nation, air travel is a key priority for Ireland to mitigate its peripherality to the EU, however, Covid-19 has brought challenges here.
Earlier in October, agreement was reached in the EU to adopt a common ‘traffic light’ system for flights as we heard only yesterday in terms of the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector in Ireland.
The system is part of the European Commission’s desire to promote a common approach to restrictions that protects public health while also ensuring that Europeans can travel around the EU.
It aims to end a confusing patchwork of country by country restrictions with regions across the EU designated green, orange or red, based on the degree to which the virus is under control, and grey if data is insufficient.
While individual EU Member States are free to determine their own measures, the European Commission has encouraged all member states to be consistent.
The traffic light system is an example that the EU can get things right. But the European response to Covid-19 has also faltered at times. Indeed, due to initial mis-steps by the EU in handling the crisis, such as the lack of solidarity to Italy that was widely publicised in March, this subsequently impacted people’s opinion of the EU, as borne out in many polls.
Polling data – what does it tell us?
Ireland actually had the highest levels of satisfaction here with 64%, with Luxemburg the lowest at 19%.
From an EM Ireland perspective, we posed a similar question in our annual ‘Ireland in the EU’ poll by RED C. This is a poll which we have published continuously since 2013, which asked people in Ireland their opinions on various EU issues.
This year the fieldwork was carried out in mid-March just as lockdowns were commencing across Europe.
On the statement that “the EU has responded well to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”, respondents in Ireland were split: 47% agreed that the EU had responded well, 46% disagreed, while 7% didn’t know.
This is relatively high when compared to other opinion polling across the EU during the year.
In a March opinion poll for POLITICO (p. 10), just 24% in Italy, 31% in France and 43% in Spain felt that the EU was helping them at that time during Covid-19.
That figure was just 8% in Greece in an April opinion poll (p. 26) in Eurobarometer.
In Germany, a FORSA-AKTUELL poll (p. 17) in May asked respondents who they have confidence in crisis management with just 37% of Germans having confidence in the EU.
The Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy (p. 42) found in June that 40% of Romanians consider that the EU reacted “weaker at first, but then, during the COVID-19 crisis, the EU response was better”.
And that does summarise perception of the EU’s response to Covid-19, poorly at first, but once it found its footing and pace, it was able to react more effectively on a range of issues, such as what I have outlined earlier.
At the same time, while people may have been negative towards the EU’s responses to Covid-19, the Kantar polling highlighted that people were highly aware of what the EU has done.
In June, an average of 76% had heard, seen, or read about measures or actions initiated by the EU to respond to Covid-19 (p. 10). Ireland was ranked eighth with 79% awareness with Italy topping this poll at 87%.
Interestingly, a SWG poll in May (p. 39) found that 69% of Italians had a positive opinion of the Next Generation EU plan from the European Commission, while in the Netherlands in June (p. 42) found that just 30% were in favour of it.
What do people want from the EU?
In the final section of my presentation this morning, what do EU citizens want from their European Union in the wake of Covid-19?
As I have highlighted, EU citizens were often highly critical about how the EU has responded to Covid-19. However, polling information has underlined a key trend throughout the year: that of a desire among citizens for greater collective action by the European Union, its leaders and its institutions.
In that Kantar polling on behalf of the European Parliament in June (p. 30), 68% agree with the statement that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises, such as Covid-19.
Ireland was 79% is in favour, the 6th highest, with Portugal topping this poll at 87%.
In Kantar’s third such opinion polling for the European Parliament that was carried out in October, it found that an absolute majority of Europeans continues to call for a larger EU budget to fight COVID-19: 54% of Europeans believe the EU should have greater financial means to overcome the consequences of this Coronavirus pandemic.
More than half of respondents (54%) say that public health should be a spending priority for the EU budget, followed by economic recovery and new opportunities for businesses (42%), climate change and environmental protection (37%) and employment and social affairs (35%).
Citizens continue to see the EU as part of the solution in this crisis: 66% of respondents agree that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the Coronavirus pandemic. These findings are consistent with the results from both previous surveys conducted by the European Parliament in April and June 2020 respectively.
Indeed, the EU gaining competences in the area of health was an issue that President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen mentioned in her September State of the EU address to the European Parliament.
This comes at a critical point of the EU as it prepares to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe,
The Conference on the Future of Europe will provide an important forum of discussion with the public about crucial issues of importance for the EU’s medium and long-term development such as the future of Europe’s economic and social system, sustainability, climate protection, innovation, digital transformation and the EU’s core values.
The Conference will also explore the lessons that Europe can learn from the pandemic and judging by the recent polling data I’ve presented today, there is a strong demand from EU citizens for that.
It is something we in European Movement Ireland will be keenly monitoring and engaging with, as it will be a key route for potential reform and debate around what Irish people want to see from the EU in the coming decades.
This is an issue which I look forward to engaging with this Committee in November of this year.
As the EU and Ireland begins to focus our attention on where we want Europe to go in the decades ahead, I will finish today by saying that we cannot have that kind of pan-EU conversation without being conscious of the challenges posed by the forces of populism, extremism and disinformation. The economic and social consequences that will inevitably arise because of the corona virus pandemic are likely to be exploited by these forces.
It has been consistently highlighted how actors, both homegrown in the EU and beyond, have interfered in elections and wider public discourse both within the EU’s borders and further afield.
This is been done by coordinated and uncoordinated individuals and groups, to news organisations funded by non-democratic states, presenting themselves as legitimate sources of news and using a variety of social media platforms and communications outlets.
The inflammatory postings of content on sensitive issues, such as race or religion, to spreading disinformation around electoral processes, are all having a detrimental impact on public trust in Irish and EU democratic decisions and institutions.
A loss of trust here would have profound and deeply negative impact on our communities, society and politics, and for the European project as a whole.
I have outlined today a brief overview of the EU’s current report card in its efforts to deal with the Covid pandemic.
Some say that the EU has evolved and developed based on responses to various crises; the Common Agricultural Policy was a response to food shortages after World War II, the single market and the Euro came after the economic shocks of the 1970s.
It is tempting to debate if there will be “more Europe” or less, more nationalism or globalism after the corona crisis is over etc. And as we encounter the second wave of the virus, no one knows how the Covid-19 crisis will continue to evolve, nor therefore how the EU may change because of it. Just as we saw a ‘Brexit bounce’ in support for the EU, this Covid crisis has revealed that EU citizens have high expectations and demands of the EU; some fair; however, some arguably outside the EU’s competencies and capacities.
What we have seen is that when Europe delivers, people recognise that and respond positively. The challenge for the EU now, as member states grapple with a second wave of this virus, is to keep on delivering. It will not be easy. The last number of weeks have shown us that the journey ahead remains difficult and uncertain. But we can be confident that people across the EU want a better, stronger Europe that can respond to crises more effectively and, importantly, give us hope for a better future.