It seemed a sort of Sesame Street approach to crisis management. Or this being the EU, Rue Sésame or Sesamstraße: simple, common-sense strategies phrased gently as if for children.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday unveiled a package of recommendations for EU countries as they look ahead toward emerging from the coronavirus lockdown measures. And other than the vague pledge of a trillion-euro economic recovery plan, much of it amounted to urging the sort of good behavior endorsed by the classic children’s TV show.
Don’t forget to wash your hands. “Keep up the strong hygiene practices acquired,” von der Leyen said. “They are very simple but they are very effective.”
Share and be kind to your neighbors. “It is very important that the coordination between neighboring member states is an excellent one,” von der Leyen said. “Good neighbors speak with each other.”
Cooperate. “It is essential to work together,” Michel said, adding: “All this feeds in to a process that will allow us to move forward, not in the same way in all countries, but so we move forward together.”
“We cannot lay down our arms, but what we have to do is keep fighting” — Pedro Sánchez, Spanish prime minister
The “Joint European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures” that the presidents presented on Wednesday is a 14-page Commission document with recommendations based on the most current research. It urges scientifically endorsed best practices, the use of hard data and the latest technology in a continuing bid to limit the spread of the virus and to save lives. The document even contains 17 footnotes linking to source material.
But even as the roadmap sought to encapsulate the very best of Brussels and the EU — calm, cool-headed prudence under pressure; community-minded Continent-wide perspective that sets aside national self-interest in pursuit of the common good — it also showcased how the EU institutions are struggling to stay relevant in an era that demands true executive power.
Struggling to find a role
The European Parliament, its operations largely shuttered since the start of the crisis, is also struggling for a role. On Friday, the Parliament is due to vote on a resolution calling for better coordination of the so-called exit strategy — not exactly a gushing endorsement of how Brussels has asserted itself in trying to synchronize national capitals.
The Commission’s roadmap, ultimately, is a set of unenforceable recommendations. At their news conference on Wednesday, von der Leyen and Michel noted several times that the document had been prepared at the request of the 27 EU countries.
In fact, it was prepared after von der Leyen and Michel recommended that the 27 heads of state and government ask them to prepare just such a plan. But there’s no need to get bogged down in details. Several EU leaders showed just how vital they felt the EU recommendations to be by starting to ease their containment measures without even waiting for the roadmap to be published.
And even as von der Leyen asserted, with all logic on her side, that following the roadmap would help prevent a renewed spike in infections, she simultaneously emphasized that she does not have the authority to tell leaders to end their lockdown policies — nor was she in fact telling them it is time to do so. Each country will make that decision on its own.
“I want to make sure that this is not, it is not a signal that confinement containment measures can be lifted as of now, but it intends to provide a [framework] for member states’ decisions,” von der Leyen said. “In general, we recommend a gradual approach.”
The gentle tone adopted by von der Leyen and Michel contrasted starkly with the rhetoric in some capitals like Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron has declared he is fighting a “kinetic war,” or in Madrid where Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez gave a news conference on Sunday insisting his country’s battle would continue even as he ended the most restrictive containment measures.
“We cannot lay down our arms, but what we have to do is keep fighting,” Sánchez said. “Now we have already established that we can save thousands of lives with everyone’s effort, and we are not going to stop doing it and doing it better; nothing will stop us until we win this war.”
The vague pledge in Brussels on Wednesday of a trillion-euro recovery plan, to be carried out through an obscure mechanism of the EU’s next long-term financial plan, offered a small glimpse of the Commission aspiring to bring serious muscle to the fight.
But there, too, the leaders’ remarks underscored the limits of their power and authority.
The debate over the next long-term budget, the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework or MFF, had stalled even before the coronavirus crisis hit. And Michel and von der Leyen conceded that they have been largely forced to redraw the entire proposal with a view toward recasting the budget as a souped-up recovery package.
But first, Michel said, he would try to give national leaders a sense of just how much the recovery will cost.
“We don’t know yet how high is the bill we will have to pay,” Michel said. “So at the next European Council, we are going to try and get a strategic vision of the MFF,” he added, “so that we can then invite the Commission to formulate some proposals, which would take into account the current crisis and the repercussions it is going to have.”
It was not exactly the sound of the EU’s big budget gun being locked, loaded and ready to fire.
Then again, the EU has always been more Sesame Street than G.I. Joe or “The Hunger Games.” And perhaps that is for the best.
Von der Leyen on Wednesday put forward three “pre-conditions” for ending containment measures: a sustained, demonstrable reduction in the spread of the virus; documented confirmation of sufficient health system capacity, not just for patients critically ill with COVID-19 but with also for those suffering from other serious ailments; and the implementation of comprehensive, reliable testing programs to quickly identify any new flare-ups.
Applying these pre-conditions would “ensure a gradual, consolidated and coordinated” approach, von der Leyen said, adding: “We all know the virus knows no borders. It can only be defeated through international cooperation and coordination.”
Michel, too, sought to underscore the EU’s soft-power strengths. “The heart of Europe is based on solidarity, sharing, to have the necessary resources available so we can react based on common sense … and offer European citizens proper answers,” he said.