I thank the Chairman and the committee for this invitation. I wish him and all committee members every success, particularly at this crucial juncture of Ireland’s EU relationship. The committee can be assured, as ever, of the ongoing engagement and support of its work by me and all of my colleagues in European Movement Ireland.
We are delighted to have this opportunity to meet the committee this morning on the critical topic of the EU’s response to Covid-19. We would be in a far worse condition if it were not for the Trojan and Herculean efforts of health workers across the EU. I pay tribute to those working across the front line in this regard.
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. They tend to be more a marathon runner than a sprinter. After a slow start, however, 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 cyberattacks, mass procurement of protective medical equipment and directing EU funding towards vaccine research.
This coronavirus 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 this committee meeting taking place as Europe experiences a deadly second wave of the virus. 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. It is a practical example of how the EU has played a vital, yet often under-recognised, central role as the provider and co-ordinator of help to member states in how we respond to Covid-19.
It is largely member state governments which led the way with health policy remaining primarily a national competency by constituent member state national governments. Several EU measures provide a flavour of some of the co-ordinated initiatives taken by various EU institutions in their attempts to alleviate the impacts of this pandemic on EU citizens. 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 and medical devices, such as ventilators, in order to help make it easier financially for member states to obtain this important equipment. This measure has now been extended to the end of October 2020.
On vaccinations, AstraZeneca is to provide 300 million doses with an option for a further 100 million. The European Commission is leading this charge on behalf of member states to secure safe and effective Covid-19 vaccinations. AstraZeneca is better known for developing the Oxford vaccine, as has been widely reported in the media, with further welcome developments emerging last weekend about its potential results.
On research, Dublin-based firm Pintail is leading on the PORSAV project, along with Palliare, UCD and 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 microvascular health.
On Tuesday, 20 October, for the first time in its history, the EU borrowed from the international monetary markets and 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, Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency, programme and is available for member states which need to mobilise significant financial means to fight the negative economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak.
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 ECB decided in June to increase the pandemic emergency purchase programme from €600 billion to €1.35 trillion. By doing so, the ECB, stated 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. In May, the European Investment Bank launched a €25 billion European guarantee fund.
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 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. These will be crucial as the Brexit clock continues to count down. This is without even mentioning the €750 billion Next Generation EU agreement.
The EU has repatriated over 82,000 EU citizens on flights from all over the world, including over 600 Irish people from the likes of India, Japan to Peru. It has co-ordinated with Netflix, which temporarily lowered video quality across Europe to reduce strain on Internet service providers. It has worked with member states to keep trade moving across borders by introducing green lanes at border crossings. The EU has been that all-important co-ordinator between and for member states as they attempted to grapple with this pandemic.
Air travel is an example of this. 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. Earlier this month, agreement was reached in the EU to adopt a common traffic light system for flights in terms of the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector in Ireland. The system 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. While individual EU member states are free to determine their own measures, the European Commission has encouraged all member states to be consistent.
While the traffic light system is an example that the EU can get things right, the European response to Covid-19 has also faltered at times. The lack of solidarity shown to Italy, widely publicised in March, subsequently impacted people’s opinion of the EU, as borne out in many polls. Polling by Kantar, on behalf of the European Parliament in April and June, showed 39% of those surveyed were satisfied that EU member states had shown enough solidarity between them in fighting Covid-19. Ireland actually had the highest levels of satisfaction with 64% with Luxemburg at the lowest, 19%.
From a European Movement Ireland's perspective, we posed a similar question in our annual Ireland in the EU poll by RED C, a poll published since 2013 in which people in Ireland are asked their opinions on various EU issues. This year the fieldwork was carried out in mid to late March just as lockdowns were commencing across Europe. On the statement that the EU has responded well to the coronavirus pandemic, respondents were equally split with 47% agreeing it had, 46% disagreeing while 7% did not know.
This response in Ireland is relatively high compared to other polling across the EU. A March opinion poll for POLITICO found that 24% of respondents in Italy, 31% of respondents in France and 43% of respondents in Spain felt that the EU was helping them at that time, while that figure was just 8% in Greece in an April opinion poll. Interestingly, as well, in Germany, a FORSA-AKTUELL poll in May asked respondents in whom they had confidence in crisis management, and only 37% of Germans replied that they had confidence in the EU. The Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy found in June that 40% of Romanians considered that the EU reacted weaker at first, but the response then got better during the crisis. This summarises the perception of the EU’s response to Covid-19; uncertain at the start, perhaps, but once it found its footing and pace, the EU was able to react more effectively on a range of issues.
At the same time, while people may have been somewhat negative regarding the EU’s response to Covid-19, the Kantar polling highlighted that people were highly aware of what the EU has done. In June, an average of 76% of people had heard, seen, or read about measures or actions initiated by the EU to respond to Covid-19, with Ireland ranked eighth at 79% awareness. Interestingly, an SWG poll in May 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 it was found that just 30% were in favour of it.
What, then, do people want from the EU in respect of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic? As I have highlighted, polling has underlined a key trend throughout the year of a desire among citizens across EU member states for greater collective action by the EU, its leaders and its institutions. In that Kantar polling on behalf of the European Parliament, 68% of respondents agreed with the statement that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises, such as Covid-19. The response to that statement in Ireland was 79% in favour, the sixth highest, with Portugal topping that poll at 87% in favour. The Kantar poll for the European Parliament in October found that an absolute majority of Europeans continued to call for a larger EU budget to fight Covid-19, with more than half the respondents, 54%, saying that public health should be a spending priority for the EU budget, followed by 42% saying economic recovery and new opportunities for businesses, 37% saying climate change and environmental protection and 35% saying employment and social affairs.
Citizens continue to see the EU as part of the solution in this crisis, with 66% of respondents agreeing that the EU should have more competences to deal with it. These findings remain consistent with the results from previous polling. Indeed, as Mr. Kiely mentioned, the EU gaining competences in the area of health was an issue the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, mentioned in her September state of the Union address to the European Parliament. This comes at a critical point, as the EU prepares to launch the conference on the future of Europe, which will provide an important forum of discussion with the public about crucial issues of importance for the EU’s medium and long-term development, in areas such as economic and social system, sustainability, climate protection, innovation, digital transformation and the EU’s core values. It will also explore the lessons that Europe can learn from the pandemic and, judging by the recent polling data I have presented, there is a strong and urgent demand from EU citizens for that to happen. This is something we in European Movement Ireland will be keenly monitoring and engaging with, and it is an issue which I look forward to engaging on with this committee later in the year.
As the EU and Ireland begin to focus our attention on where we want Europe to go in the decades ahead, I will finish by saying we cannot have that kind of pan-European conversation without being conscious of the challenges posed by the forces of populism, extremism and disinformation. A loss of trust and the impact of these forces would have a profound and deeply negative impact on our communities, societies and politics, and for the whole European project.
I have outlined a brief overview of the EU’s current report card in its efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Some say the EU has evolved and developed based on responses to various crises, be that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, as a response to food shortages after the Second World War or the Single Market and the euro coming after the economic shocks of the 1970s. It is tempting to debate if there will be more Europe or less and more nationalism or globalism after the coronavirus crisis is over. As we encounter the second wave of the virus across Europe, no one knows how it will continue to evolve, nor, therefore, how the EU may change because of it. Just as we witnessed a Brexit bounce in support for the EU, this Covid-19 crisis has revealed that EU citizens have high expectations and demands of the EU. Some of these are fair, but some, however, are arguably outside the EU’s existing core competencies and capacities.
What we have seen, however, 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 Covid-19, is to keep on delivering. It will not be easy. Recent weeks have shown us that the journey ahead remains difficult and uncertain. We can be confident, however, that people across the EU want a better and stronger Europe that can respond to crises more effectively and, importantly, give us hope for a better future.