Coronavirus crisis. The von der Leyen Commission lacks audacity. Congenital weakness?

(B2) Faced with the scale of the current Coronavirus crisis, the European response still seems very timid. Bold on the economy, weak on crisis management. Surprising for a Commission that claims to be geopolitical

President of the European Commission in meeting by videoconference (credit: European Commission)

Humanitarian aid has been operating at European level for over thirty years. And in as long as I observe it, I have rarely seen such a reaction so under-proportioned.

A Europe that is neither inactive nor helpless

In the current epidemic crisis, the European institutions have not been idle. On the contrary. The measures taken, in particular, to support activity or preserve the single market are rather bold and rapid.

Taboos that are shattering economically

We are departing from the Stability Pact (a small revolution). We close the external borders. We tolerate the closing of internal borders, with just the recommendation of ‘green’ corridors for the transport of goods. Exceptional state aid is approved almost automatically. Without forgetting the completely revised decision mode. In a few days, what was impossible yesterday (videoconference, voting by email, delegation of decisions to ambassadors, etc.) becomes possible today.

Civil protection triggered …

The civil protection mechanism has been triggered. From January 28, at the request of France, especially to organize the repatriation of citizens stranded abroad. A public market was launched as a matter of urgency, to buy masks and respirators (masks with breathing). But the pace remains slow, very slow, compared to the scale of the crisis (1). The first deliveries will not take place until early April. It’s late … And finally it’s weak. While Italian hospitals are crying out for famine, and that Spain could in turn be overwhelmed, the answer is not up to par.

… but underweight compared to the scale of the crisis

The European medical corps was not triggered, it disappeared body and well (read : Le corps médical européen ne répond plus). The famous decision taken under Jean-Claude Juncker to be able to use the instrument of humanitarian aid on European territory, left aside (2). As for the European medical command (a PESCO project) or the logistics hub, it is still in the pipeline. The EU military structures (EU staff …), or close to it, continue to function, but without any coordination. Germany and Austria trigger the solidarity clause after three weeks. No one answers the phone. Etc.

Astonishing!

In the 1990s, humanitarian aid set the pace in Europe

In 1989, when it came to send aid to Romania, during the palace revolution which brought down Ceaușescu, during the Christmas holidays, it only took a few hours to release the funds, choose operators and the emergency trucks were leaving (read : La Commission européenne déclenche une aide d’urgence à la Roumanie). The same goes for the war in Yugoslavia, which served as a full-scale test for the European Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), created in 1992, which has become a full Directorate-General. For years, European ‘humanitarians’ have been on all fronts: from Chechnya to Syria today. And some have lost their lives. Why are they not on the front lines today?

Europe is today well armed and well endowed

The Union has a clear competence, renovated by the Treaty of Lisbon (3). It has human resources: an entire directorate dedicated to humanitarian aid and civil protection, a well-equipped 24-hour crisis room. It has an information analysis and intelligence system which should have led it to anticipate the crisis (4). We are far from the small office tucked away in the depths of DG Environment. ERCC – the Emergency Response Coordination Centre – is staffed with competent people. It has a (not negligible) budget. And several systems have been put in place – civil protection mechanism, operational reserve (RescEU), European medical corps … What is the point of having all this?

Have Europeans forgotten daring?

One has the impression that the whole European structure remains, today, paralyzed, the finger on the seam of the pants, awaiting the order (from Ursula or another). Would it have lost this capacity for innovation, anticipation, daring, which has always characterized humanitarian aid to the European. Usually, during the crisis, we improvise, then we formalize. Today it seems to be the opposite. All the fine statements – an ‘integrated vision’, a ‘global Europe’, ‘a geopolitical Commission’, etc. – would they just be windy? And Europe would then continue to operate in ‘silos’, institution by institution, instead of working in a network. Would Ursula von der Leyen’s political statements in her enthronement speech be out of date?

Is Ursula up to the challenge?

Would the current President of the European Commission be so obsessed with economics that she would forget the world where she came from: defense? Or is it simply (let’s dare the word) ‘not competent’? When Ursula von der Leyen, in a solemn message on twitter (pronounced in three languages) explains that “the fight against the virus will take a long time. The strength and the means to win this struggle will come from our large single market. This is the reason why we have to protect it “, one can be surprised by such myopia. Isn’t the first emergency today saving lives? The single market is an essential asset to be preserved, of course. But a secondary asset alongside the medical and health emergency. Or indeed, Europe is just a market. And the Geopolitical Commission can close its doors.

Is Lenarčič still alive?

As for the European Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, in charge of crisis management (5), it is a mystery to me. He should be today, on the front line, present every day, before us. It does not exist. We had an interview (by email) with him. It cannot be said to be transcendent (read : Nous devons constituer un stock stratégique de matériel médical (Janez Lenarčič)). The height of views and daring do not seem to be his strong point. Without wanting to play the veteran, with Emma Bonino, Louis Michel or Kristalina Georgieva – each in his style – it moved differently!

Deploy internally …

Can Europe act? Yes. It is not too late yet. But we must take the bull by the horns today. The Union could play a role by quickly mobilizing its officials. Everything that the European Commission has in-house medical or logistical skills must be made available to States which request it. It must also mobilize and finance NGOs and voluntary organizations, to rapidly deploy field hospitals in all the red (crisis) and orange (potentially crisis) zones. She should not hesitate to charter planes herself to bring missing medical equipment to countries in serious need, if necessary by contracting with private carriers, or through member states. The funding will have to be fully covered by the EU budget, even if it means making an emergency modification to the RescEU system. You have to be as revolutionary in civil protection as you are in economic matters.

Anticipate externally …

And above all, we must prepare the next move. The EU must mobilize all of its resources, civil and military, to tackle this crisis, in particular the EU crisis management warehouse which is in Stockholm (financed by the European budget). It must prepare the deployment of a medical battlegroup either in Europe or in the world, when the crisis will reach the Sahel for example or other neighboring countries. A PSDC-type relief operation could very well also be prepared to repatriate European citizens (6). The EU General Staff can lend a hand when requested or, outside, the European Transport Aviation Command (EATC), to plan transport. And if necessary, the Union could have recourse to NATO, in the name of this much vaunted EU-NATO cooperation, the reality of which we never have except in beautiful speeches.

It’s urgent !

Ladies and gentlemen of the Berlaymont. You only have a few days left to save your European honor and credibility. Move on !

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


Public health, no. Crisis management

Some European ‘experts’, in search of inspiration all day long: Europe has no competence in matters of public health. That is why it cannot act in this crisis. It is true in public health, the European Union has limited powers. But public health is hospital management, vaccination policy, prevention of this or that disease. We are (unfortunately) no longer in this issue today (even if the medical profession is put to great contribution). Here, we are in crisis management, emergency, civil protection. In this area, the European Union has clear and precise powers (see note 3).


  1. European specialists will swear that this period is ultra-short, compared to the usual European public procurement procedures (terribly slow). It is reality. But a month in the current emergency, given the surge in the epidemic and the death rate, it is still too slow.
  2. Decision taken under the guise of Article 122.2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU: “When a Member State experiences difficulties or a serious threat of serious difficulties, due to natural disasters or exceptional events beyond its control , the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may, under certain conditions, grant financial assistance from the Union to the Member State concerned. The President of the Council informs the European Parliament of the decision taken.
  3. The Union’s action aims to: a) support and supplement the action of the Member States at national, regional and local level relating to risk prevention and the preparation of civil protection actors in the Member States and on intervention in the event of natural or man-made disasters within the Union; b) to promote rapid and efficient operational cooperation within the Union between national civil protection services; c) to promote the coherence of actions undertaken at international level in the field of civil protection. “(Article 196 TFEU)
  4. IntCen, which analyzes intelligence, sends its summaries (daily, weekly or specific) to the various European officials. The High Representative of the EU but also the President of the European Commission and all the commissioners in ‘sensitive’ posts are recipients of this prose. They cannot deny having received the alert in time.
  5. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen preferred this title to the usual celui crisis response (political term for humanitarian aid and civil protection). “Crisis management” has a very precise meaning in political and legal terms, corresponding (according to the Treaty) to common security and defense missions. In the political field, we are no longer in the usual response (civil protection), but in the integrated response (encompassing security and the military in theory).
  6. Among the possible external missions is “humanitarian and evacuation missions”. (Article 43.1 EU Treaty)

Read also : L’Office européen d’aide humanitaire, ECHO, un système rodé aux crises