COVID-19 and Communication: what impression is the EU making?

, by Théo Verdier, translated by Fani Mitaki

COVID-19 and Communication: what impression is the EU making?
Ursula von der Leyen on the 26th March in Brussels. Credit: European Union. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service

While EU institutions took a long time to respond to the spread of coronavirus, they are now intensifying their efforts to coordinate member states and mobilise the Community’s resources. However, it may be more difficult to convince the public that they really have taken action.

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression”, as the saying goes. It applies perfectly to the EU during this period. For a long time, the European Commission appeared to be waiting, torn between its willingness to coordinate the different member states and its lack of authority in the health sector.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU’s executive branch, has herself admitted that she underestimated the virus.

Off to a late start

This “delay”, as the journalist Nora Hamadi called it in remarks reported by the Jean Jaurès Foundation, has occurred “in the same way as in the European capitals”. The Secretary of State for European Affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, described the reaction of European governments in the left-wing French newspaper “Libération”. According to her, they went through three phases:”observation“, then”astonishment“with impulsive reactions —such as France and Germany’s decision to restrict intra-European exports of medical equipment— and finally the”start of mobilisation", which began with the first online meeting of the European Council on the 10th March, dedicated to the current health crisis.

The European Community is far from the only one to blame for the EU’s disorganisation. The image of a Europe incapable of working together is not without consequences. Italy has expressed a feeling of great abandonment, faced as it is with the purported lack of European solidarity. “I say this as a passionate European, Europe should have worked together immediately,” said Sandra Zampa, Italian Vice-Minister of Health, in an interview with Ouest France newspaper, before admitting: “the President of the European Commission should have immediately called in those responsible for health, even if it is a national matter”.

The EU’s tasks: coordinating the member states and mobilising the Community’s resources

This article does not aim to provide an exhaustive list of the measures taken at the European level to fight the epidemic. However, we can outline its main approaches:

- On the economic front, the European Commission has started a strategy to guarantee national governments a flexible aid system and budgetary stability. EU finance ministers have agreed a €500 billion package to help EU member states pay for medical costs and rebuild national economies. The European Central Bank announced the €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP). The package was accompanied by measures to support the economy. The proposal for “corona-bonds” to share part of the European debt was nevertheless rejected by Germany and the Netherlands on 26 March.

- Regarding borders, the European Council supported the European Commission’s proposal to restrict entry at the EU’s external borders for 30 days. The Commission is now working to limit the impact of the re-establishment of national border controls by setting up “green lanes” fast-tracking essential goods.

- Concerning the supply of medical equipment, the Commission has extended the use of the EU’s civil protection mechanism to create a ’strategic reserve’ of medical equipment. This is in parallel with the launch of a joint public sector procurement procedure so that 25 member states can buy protective equipment together.

A difficult communication war

As we have seen, the EU has finally been able to swing into action on a historical scale during this crisis. And its action does not stop there. The next developments will see the end of several European taboos. Such as recourse to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) or to issuing joint debt.

However, the EU and indeed all European countries are being negatively affected by the narrative used by their competitors. China, Russia and even Cuba more recently have made a point of making emphatic gestures of solidarity towards Italy. Gestures whose level of commitment varies, ranging from massive support to more symbolic actions. Such support from outside the Community, which sometimes receives far more coverage in the press, amplifies the prevailing discourse that the EU is no longer able to close ranks.

Yet the European Union and its members were able to act quite early, as Ursula von der Leyen reminded us, by sending more than 50 tonnes of medical equipment to China in January and by organising and contributing financially to the repatriation of Europeans from Wuhan. Even now, France and Germany, which are still suffering the full effects of the virus, can pride themselves on having sent as much equipment to Italy as China.

The EU is therefore engaged in a war of communication in which it has to face many powerful opponents. However, the EU institutions also have a lot to gain from this. We turn systematically to Europe for solutions when a crisis hits. The various European institutions are at the centre of the effort to support and coordinate the member states. This includes internal and external borders, the management and supply of medical equipment, the repatriation of European nationals abroad and the launch of economic and budgetary measures.

The fact that the Community has gone beyond its remit demonstrates the added value of its action. The question remains: how can this added value be promoted in the eyes of the public? The EU is in desperate need of a “face”. Although Ursula von der Leyen makes the effort to communicate in several languages and varies her announcements and messages, the impact of her communication to the general public remains limited.

The Presidents of the European Council, Commission, and Parliament, on the other hand, made an interesting move when they organised a crisis visit to Greece during the new influx of migrants to Athens and Europe. While this move had a touch of military about it, it had the benefit of making European commitment visible. As far as possible, given the spread of the virus, we must provide ourselves with the means to continue making the EU’s actions present and visible in the public sphere.

With thanks to The New Federalist’s heads of translation Emma J Latham and Rebecca Wenmoth for your hard work organising a constant flow translations to cover the pandemic!

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