Citizens Initiative in Europe

ICE (Citizens Initiative in Europe) is a French association created in 1989 after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was, at the beginning, the product of a common belief, shared by a group of men and women who founded the organisation, that living in Europe was not conceivable without establishing strong bonds of basic solidarity between Europeans.

For more than twenty years, ICE has pursued the goal of providing a public arena for intellectual exchange as well as social and political thinking, putting forward the basic principles of resistance to the irrationalities and limitations of democracy that have affected Europe much too often - a forum independent of economic powers, religious authorities, governments and political parties.

COVID-19 and Europe

Several scientists, among whom six biologists are founding members of ICE. In this singular period, our European engagement leads us to reflect on the European response to the Covid-19 crisis, on the expectations towards Europe in this context, on the difficulties of having effective responses, on the differences between national responses, on the limits to European solidarity - and finally to elaborate on possible improvements in the functioning of the European Union. The actions that we plan on proposing will be commensurate with the means of a small organisation with few resources, but willing to freely share our ideas.

With a few known variations, which can be hard to fully understand and explain, COVID-19 has impacted all of Europe in a fairly similar way.

Significant and Positive Milestones

Europe's actions to help the European countries facing the crisis are numerous but mostly focused on the economy, since health policies are entirely the responsibility of states, with limited exceptions: the Commission and the Parliament may issue some recommendations and the European Union Solidarity Fund can respond to major natural disasters.

Nonetheless, the following list of actions which have been carried out or are being considered gives a list of significant achievements:

  • Joint repatriation of European citizens stranded outside its borders.
  • Suspension of the provisional freeze on resources allocated to the European budget, which has led to allocating up to 7.5 billion euros for hospitals.
  • Emergency allocation of a 140 million Euros budget towards research on Covid 19, including a vaccine.
  • Release of 800 million euros from the European Union Solidarity Fund.
  • Implementation of a limitation of medical exports outside of European borders if internal needs are not covered.
  • Closure of the Schengen area and of the external borders of the EU from March 17 to May 15.
  • Possibility of closing national borders, without stopping the circulation of essential supplies.
  • Exception to the 3% public deficit rule.
  • Repurchase of debts of European states by the European Central Bank up to 750 billion euros.
  • 200 billion Euros loans by the European Investment Bank to support businesses in trouble.
  • Mobilization of the European Stability Mechanism to guarantee loans from member states up to 240 billion Euros.
  • SURE mechanism guaranteeing loans up 100 billion to mitigate unemployment risks in member states.
  • Plan to double the European budget from 1% to 2% of European GDP.

Obvious shortcomings and failures

The most serious failure is the lack of solidarity and sharing of health supplies: European states have competed on the market for masks, drugs, equipment instead of making common cause. This has had a heavy impact on the supply itself and on the capacity to negotiate prices. In the absence of clear sharing rules, we do not give to our neighbours what we may need in the near future. It is appropriate to recall a historic precedent: during the war of 1914-1918 and in 1939-1940, France and Great Britain had entirely pooled their logistical means and supplies on the international markets, putting in place a mechanism of equitable distribution between the two countries. Jean-Monnet, who would become one of the European founding fathers, was one of the French officials involved in the scheme in the two wars.

In the absence of a European health agency, one attempt was initiated by France which initiated the "Discovery programme" of clinical trials of coronavirus drugs. This study was not relayed in Europe, other countries have instead joined the Solidarity clinical trial programme piloted by the World Health Organisation - and can certainly not be faulted for having done so.

The direct borrowing capacity of the European Union, Europe, in other words its capacity to emit Eurobonds, was opposed by the established stumbling block of Northern "virtuous" Europe, which is against any sharing of the financial burden without a strict control of budget deficits, while southern Europe countries, who are experiencing deeper financial problems, were in favour of the Eurobond mechanism. The lack of Eurobonds leads to uneven borrowing rates by Member States (the "spread") which in turn induce varying crisis response capacities in different countries.

The urgency of the situation did not significantly accelerate the negotiation and decision-making processes of the European Council. Proposals by the EU Commission must be approved by heads of state, sometimes by the European Parliament or by national parliaments. The European Union is dependent on Member States and their democratic institutions, with a very low budget of its own. Thus the European Institutions are not well suited to handle situations of crisis.

But Member States are in hardly better shape. Although Health Policies are within their exclusive competence, they have shown, to varying degrees, their unpreparedness (in particular the lack of ICU beds and in handling homes for elderly people. National bureaucracies have been slow to react. Without calling into question the principle of subsidiarity leaving health policies to Member States, it is urgent to help the European Union to acquire bring more agility and to show more solidarity in the face of crises that are sure to happen again - but of course differently.

by Michel Marian and Bernard Wach

Updated on 10/05/2020