EU responses to coronavirus require effective engagement with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia - by broadening political and sectoral communication, facilitating access to European medical equipment and revising association agendas to reflect health needs in the post-Covid period.
Europe is learning from its own experience how to fight the coronavirus pandemic, even though it has had almost two months (January-March 2020) since the initial reporting of the epidemic's outbreak in China, to mobilize its prevention capacity. At the level of political communication, the EU reacted to the existence of Covid-19, through the rotating Council Presidency of Croatia, which launched the Integrated Crisis Response, at the end of January. In practical terms, however, other concerns dominated the European agenda until very recently- tensions in northwestern Syria (Idlib, February 2020) and the threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "open the borders" (NYT, February 29, 2020). The risk of a repeated "2015 migrant crisis" has disoriented Brussels and the Member States. While Italy was fast becoming the epicentre of the coronavirus on the European continent, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece for taking on the role of "shield of Europe" (Euronews, March 4, 2020) against illegal crossings at the Greek-Turkish border. The reorientation of the EU toward crisis management of the Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted the handling of the situation in Greece. On the one hand, Athens necessitates help managing the border and migration flows, and on the other hand, has been subject to attempts at persuasion to uphold the right to asylum in Europe (Guardian, 13 March 2020).
After the epidemic violently hit the Italian population (March 23: over 53,000 cases of infection and more than 4,000 deaths reported), the virus advanced across the continent - to Spain (the second most severely affected European country with over 1000 deaths), France, Germany and beyond. The close connections of the Eastern European diaspora and migrants with EU member states facilitated the penetration of the virus into the Eastern Partnership states via the tissue of interpersonal contacts. The increasingly dense air travel networks, as well as simplification of procedures for the movement of persons - including by facilitated and liberalized visa regimes - have undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the virus. In the northern extremity of the Partnership, particularly in Moldova and Ukraine, the epidemic has predominantly arrived via European Union states. In addition to these countries, Iran has become an additional source of risk for the Southern Partnership countries - Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Although criticized for not being quick off the mark, the EU has succeeded in developing regulatory and financial measures to counteract the effects of the health crisis and to stimulate solidarity between European states. In a partial, indirect and subtle form, the allusion to European solidarity with the eastern neighbours, concerning the Covid-19 pandemic, was included in the document, entitled "Reinforcing Resilience - An Eastern Partnership that delivers for all", launched by the EU, on March 18, 2020.
Testing European solidarity
The EU's decision-making machinery reacted rather slowly to the first signs of the spread of the Covid-19 virus. There were virtually no existing supranational instruments available for the sanitary protection of Europeans and the rapid, coordinated and unified counteracting of epidemiological dangers of this magnitude. European solidarity between the EU and the Member States, but primarily state to state solidarity, was challenged by the assertion of national interests. Some European governments have been overwhelmed by the rapid transmission of the virus, while others resorted to uncoordinated actions, such as restricting the sale of medical equipment to within national boundaries (FinancialTimes, March 13, 2020).
The lack of immediately available tools generated a wave of creativity from the European institutions. But the exceptional measures were only launched where the EU has express powers to do so (state aid, internal common market, public procurement, internal movement of goods, etc.). The 27 member countries (and the UK that is in transition period until December 31) and 6 non-EU countries (Iceland, Norway, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Turkey) participating in the European Civil Protection Mechanism, did not show any response when Italy activated it. In the absence of aid from within the EU, the Italian call for help was received and acted on by China (EuroActiv, 19 March 2020), with Chinese help subsequently extended also to Spain. US unilateralism and the inadequate EU pandemic response potentially reinforces China's "soft power" in post-Covid-19 Europe, including in Western Balkans (Serbia), and its economic-technological ambitions, such as bringing Huawei to the pinnacle of European 5G infrastructure (Politico, January 29, 2020).
Although the EU has been harshly criticized for not enabling European solidarity, in reality, the European Union treaties do not allow it to act differently. Primo, Art. 222 of the Treaty on the EU Functioning of the EU (TFEU), abbreviated as the "solidarity clause", provides that the EU and the Member States must act in a spirit of solidarity, when a Member State becomes the victim of a terrorist act or natural or anthropogenic disaster. But, from a technical point of view, Covid-19 does not fall into the category of reasons that can trigger the solidarity clause. Segundo, the European Commission can come up with proposals that could potentially lead to the activation of the solidarity clause, but their implementation requires the approval of the EU Council, meaning the national governments. Tertio, even if the clause comes into force, Member States have the right to select the method considered appropriate to transpose solidarity with the requesting party. Therefore, in its current form, the EU solidarity mechanism exhibits legal ambiguity, which impedes its substantial application, for any type of crisis and (crucially) by all member states.
However, in the end, the Member States supported the "coordinated economic response" of the European Commission meant to alleviate the economic shock and financial burden of the Covid-19 crisis. These measures can be divided into three blocks. The first block of actions aims at simplifying the joint procurement procedures for personal protection equipment (PPE), including from non-European producers. The possibility of reorienting the production of the European textile industry is being examined. In addition, a system of authorization for the export of personal protective equipment (gloves, respiratory masks, suits, etc.) has been introduced temporarily for third countries (EU, March 15, 2020), which also includes the Eastern Partnership states. Medicines do not fall into this category, which allows Romania to deliver drugs to Moldova (Digi24, March 15, 2020).
The second block of measures concerns aid to the aviation sector, the tourism industry, businesses and employees. Airlines can derogate from the "use or lose" principle when requesting and allocating time slots in advance, between March and June 2020. The situation in the tourism industry is monitored through engagement with the relevant associations in the member countries, to identify solutions. The EU has also redirected money from existing funds to increase the liquidity available to save over 100 thousand small and medium-sized enterprises (around EUR 9 billion). To support vulnerable groups of employees, the European Social Fund (ESF) is being used, along with the proposal to establish a "European reinsurance system for unemployment benefits".
The third block refers to the steps taken by the EU to support the Member States. On the one hand, the conditions for granting state aid are relaxed - both towards citizens and companies. On the other hand, the EU is contemplating the mobilization of to existing and unused funds (about EUR 65 billion) - structural and cohesive ones - to identify the sources needed to (co-)finance the actions of national governments. At the same time, the European Commission suggests maximum flexibility for the fiscal framework, giving the Member States the freedom to operate the necessary expenses to eliminate the socio-economic consequences caused by Covid. These measures are part of a legislative proposal of the European Commission - "Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative". Following the "co-decision" of the EU Council (national governments) and the European Parliament, ready to speed up the legal procedures (EuropeanParliament, March 17, 2020), the initiative can become implementable.
Eastern resilience and the role of the EU-Moldova Association Agreement
Referring to the Eastern Partnership as a "crucial element of the EU's foreign policy", EU High Representative Josep Borrell launched the proposal to "strengthen the resilience" of the Eastern Partners (March 18, 2020). The priorities set in the renewed approach mainly provide for the closer interconnection of the countries in the region and investment in their own sources of economic development. Borrell considers that the EU’s "Neighbours' strength is also the European Union's strength". It seems clear that the Covid-19 crisis provided at least some impetus for the strengthening of the EU's priorities for the Eastern Neighborhood. EU Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said the EU will work closely with Eastern neighbors to "address current challenges at all levels, including the COVID-19 pandemic" (EU, March 18, 2020). In addition to the promised aid for the modernization of the public health sector (medical infrastructure, training of medical personnel, access to health services), the EU will provide support to "better manage" case-related diseases, such as the coronavirus. However, this laudable promise lacks detail and it remains to be seen whether the EU will provide tangible support to tackle the current pandemic rather than helping to prevent similar situations in the future.
The EU-Moldova Association Agreement considerably exceeds the opportunities offered by the Eastern Partnership's multilateral platform. As in the field of civil protection (IPN, April 25, 2017), the Agreement contains relevant provisions in the area of public health (Title IV, Chapter 21, Art. 113-116). Moldova has committed to harmonize legislation with 4 European measures in the field of transmissible diseases, including the creation of an epidemiological surveillance network until 2023 year.
Three provisions of the Agreement are essential in the context of COVID-19: 1) “increasing the capacity to prepare for threats and emergencies for public health”; 2) the integration of Moldova in EU networks in the field of health; and “progressive improvement” of relations between Moldova and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Only point three, however, can be found in the 2017-2019 Association Agenda, which sets out the priority actions for the reform agenda. Based on recognized flaws in Moldovan governance highlighted by Covid-19, the EU-Moldova Association Agenda for 2020-2022 necessitates references to the fast transposition of the European acquis on the surveillance of transmissible diseases. At the same time, the EU can provide technical-financial support for the effort to map the relevant European health institutions. Moldova should be encouraged to gradually join the institutions that currently manage the Covid-19 crisis. It is also crucial to develop a “road map” to materialize relations with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which is the key EU institution with expertise and technical capabilities. The services of this European agency already benefit the countries with observer status, such as the states of the European Economic Area (3 countries) and some candidate states – from the Western Balkans (Montenegro) and Turkey. The collective approach to deepen relations with the EU, initiated by Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, can be updated by requesting an efficient integration in the field of public health.
Moldova needs solutions to provide guarantees to beneficiaries of the public health system and guidance for government when they are faced with epidemiological pressures. Currently, without these tools, the situation in Moldova is deeply uncertain. The Moldovan authorities underestimated the depth of the relationship between the diaspora and the Moldovan migrants within the European space (IOM, 2015: Italy - 142,266 Moldovan citizens, Spain - 16,202, Germany - 14,815). At the same time, it seems clear that many Moldovan citizens ignored official requirements/advice because of ignorance or scepticism towards the authorities, contributing to the easy penetration of the virus into and within the country. The non-identification of “patients zero”, the organization of new parliamentary elections in Hincesti (March 15) ignoring the local outbreaks of infection and inefficient filtering of Moldovans at the airport, faciliated the import, and subsequently the local expansion of the virus.
In just two weeks after the first case was detected (Digi24, March 7, 2020), the authorities identified over 80 coronavirus cases. Today, more than 100 people are suspected of infection. Due to the need to tighten up the measures, the executive convinced the Moldovan legislature to adopt a motion providing for 2 months of a state of emergency (March 17-May 15, 2020), a period in which derogation from the obligations towards the ECHR are made, except for Article 15 (IPN, March 21, 2020). Moldova introduced the special regime after Armenia (one day - March 16), but before the regions of Ukraine (Kyiv and Kharkiv - March 20-21) and Georgia (4 days - March 21). Government actions are supervised by civil society, failures are revealed by the media is a usual modus vivendi. Today, however, Moldova displays some unreal images. While the army is providing vehicles to help with Covid-19, the church is asked to pause gatherings of parishioners, the majority of citizens stay in quarantine, which will affect the Easter celebrations. Last year, Moldova tested the resilience of democracy in the face of threats from the oligarchic regime. In 2020, Covid-19 challenges the country's resilience in the face of an exceptional health crisis, coupled with governance by an unpopular administration.
Instead of conclusions...
So far, the EU has displayed too little capacity to handle several crises at the same time. The reappearance of a real, previously felt crisis - such as that of migration – initially distracted attention from the emergence of the new crisis - that of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the criticisms, the ecosystem of the European institutions has managed to produce various economic and financial measures, which give a certain sense of control of the situation. However, the national governments have the primary responsibility for circumventing and lowering the epidemic. Without drastic measures, similar to those in Spain and France, the capacity of national systems of public health to overcome and taper down coronavirus infections remains far from certain.
The EU openly recognizes that the resilience of its Eastern neighbours is a priority. The Covid-19 crisis demonstrates how important it is to coordinate actions both within the EU and between Brussels and its eastern neighbourhood. Blocking borders, stopping flights and other urgent measures taken by EU countries, with or without Brussels’ notice, is impacting eastern neighbours, primarily the Eastern Partnership states. In the last 5 years, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have advanced economic integration with the European market and intensified human contacts, in response to Russia's political, commercial and military pressures. That is why EU responses to the coronavirus pandemic require active engagement with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia - by broadening political and sectoral communication, facilitating access to European medical equipment and reviewing association agendas to reflect existential health needs in the Covid-19 period.
The Op-Ed is published within the project "Understanding the Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) between the EU and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia" carried out with the financial support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The project is coordinated by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and implemented in partnership with the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting (IER) in Kiev, the Reformatics Policy Consulting Center in Tbilisi and the Expert-Grup Think-Tank in Chișinău.