Brussels during lockdown in March. Credit: Jules Johnston/The Brussels Times
Investigative journalists published last week revealing findings about how the EU institution fumbled with their response in the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Europe.
In an article (15 July), based on an analysis of internal records and interviews with EU officials and experts, the British daily The Guardian (together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) tells what it calls the full story of how Europe became the epicenter of a global pandemic and what lessons might be learned.
The European Commission acted within the current legal framework, which puts the responsibility and competency for public health in the hands of the member states. That limited the Commission’s ability to act proactively and to decide on common preventive measures. The Commission admitted recently that coordination was lacking in the beginning of the pandemic.
To some extent, The Guardian’s investigation confirms the perception that other journalists had of the Commission’s initial response, judging by its replies to questions at the daily press conferences in Brussels. To this the investigation discloses crucial mistakes by the member states and their lack of solidarity. Some of this has already been reported by national media.
One example is the Commission’s health security committee, made up of health ministry representatives from each member state. When it met on 17 January, just 12 of the 27 member states, plus the UK, had phoned in. One of the many absentees was Italy. The Italian representative had not noticed the email inviting him to the meeting.
Screening all airport arrivalswas considered as ineffective by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Instead, it recommended checking passengers on flights from Wuhan, where the outbreak had started. According to The Guardian, the committee had planned to release recommendations on border measures. But those who did attend could not agree. In fact, border controlswere implemented much later in March.
When Chinese tourists in Rome were tested positive on 30 January, the Italian government banned all flights to and from China and sought a meeting of EU health ministers to push for stricter entry screening measures across Europe. That meeting took place first on 13 February because the Croatian government, in charge of the EU presidency, had fired its health minister following a financial scandal.
It would become worse. According to The Guardian, there was no response on 26 February to a desperate request from Italy for help. “No member state responded to Italy’s request and to the Commission’s call for help,” said Janez Lenarcic, the European commissioner responsible for crisis management.
“Which meant that not only is Italy is not prepared … Nobody is prepared … The lack of response to the Italian request was not so much a lack of solidarity. It was a lack of equipment.”
In March, starting with Italy, member states started to implement lockdown restrictions but it was already too late for them. “If Italy could have done it 10 or 14 days before it would have been better,” said professor Walter Ricciardi, a senior adviser to the Italian health ministry. “But they [the other member states] had the Italian experience and they didn’t follow it.”
As the crisis evolved, the Commission learned some new lessons and stepped up its response. Members states, while still deciding unilaterally on border controls and travel restrictions, started to show solidarity. EU’s health preparedness improved. By now, EU and the member states should be more prepared for future outbreaks of the coronavirus.
What is the reaction of the European Court of Auditors (ECA)? It does not comment on media articles, according to its press office. In May, ECA announced that it has updated its 2020 work programme to shift focus of its work towards COVID-19-related aspects. It added two new review tasks as high priority tasks. Both reviews aim at contributing to the public discussion on EU’s handling of the pandemic.
The Brussels Times asked ECA if it plans to carry out an audit in “real time” of EU’s preparedness and response to the outbreak so that lessons can be learned already now when the EU might face a second wave.
“We may carry out further Covid-19 related audit work in the future also based on the two reviews currently ongoing in the areas of public health and economic policy response, as well to take account any views from our stakeholders, particularly the Parliament and Council,” ECA president Klaus-Heiner Lehne replied.
ECA explains that it does not want to overburden the EU with new audits while it still is operating in crisis mode during the pandemic but no doubt ECA will be busy in the years ahead.
Commenting on 21 July on the Council’s deal on EU’s budget and recovery fund, ECA twitted that, “Today’s deal gives the European project a boost to recover from the #COVID19 crisis and head into a new #EUbudget period that will focus on fundamental changes for the future. We will continue our role of scrutiny and ensure that added value is achieved! #EUCO”