A fully fledged Health Union must become the key priority for the future. In the first ever webinar held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), on 24 April 2020, Luca Jahier, president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), made it clear that the time was ripe for a new step forward in European integration. The EU had to deliver a common response in the health sector to the current coronavirus crisis, capitalising on what had already been done over the past few weeks and moving ahead with a clear vision. "We need to protect people that are facing the pandemic but also work together to prevent new ones", said Mr Jahier. "Here we have a need, a demand and an opportunity to be the stronger Union that EU citizens want. The last mile is often the most difficult one, but we need to walk it now in order to ensure a more resilient and sustainable Union."
In discussing the future challenges that the EU was facing with the COVID-19 emergency, Mr Jahier was joined by MEP Margarida Marques, vice-chair of the European Parliament's Budget Committee, and Enrico Letta, former Italian prime minister and president of the Jacques Delors Institute, in an online debate which was moderated by Daniela Vincenti, the EESC president's spokesperson.
Commenting on the EU Recovery Fund agreed by the European Council on 23 April 2020, which endorsed the EUR 540 billion safety net package adopted by the Eurogroup the previous week, Mr Jahier was pleased to note that there were no longer tensions between Member States: "This is very good news. Now we should concentrate on reinforcing protection and shaping the EU Recovery Fund. Many details remain unclear. We need to define its role, size, the instruments at its disposal, and the rules on how to finance this package. The glass is half full. This commitment is a matter of unity that was not there only a few weeks ago."
He then pointed to the absolute need to implement, without delay, the measures that had already been decided at EU level, overcoming possible pre-existing red tape at national and regional level. "We always have to be very clear," he declared, "that our societies and economies are paying the price of this crisis: workers, enterprises, local communities, citizens. We need fast and swift implementation because people are in need! We must not lose this focus on implementation: the sooner, the better. If we do not put into practice what has been decided, we will fail. If we are not able to go further, we will fail too."
Referring to the recovery fund, Ms Marques stressed the need for a community response to the crisis, as opposed to an intergovernmental approach, and for significant agreements, because the European Parliament was monitoring developments and was very attentive to people's expectations. "The Council sent a positive and strong signal to citizens," she noted. "We now need to know how to finance the recovery fund, what it should cover, how the money should be distributed and what its impact will be. All Member States need resources, because they are saving lives and this is very expensive. No Member State will be able respect the EU's fiscal rules. This is a symmetric crisis with symmetric consequences and we need to recover at European level, not only at national level. We need to be concrete and deliver on solidarity."
Mr Letta agreed with Mr Jahier that the determination and demonstration of goodwill to act together was the most important sign sent by the Council. He talked of the SURE initiative, the EUR 100 billion solidarity instrument to help workers keep their incomes and businesses to stay afloat, as the "greatest social achievement in the EU", one that Jacques Delors had always pushed for. He then praised the choice of the heads of state and governments to face the crisis by using community methods rather than intergovernmental ones, but warned of the importance of striking the right balance between grants and loans, as a focus on the latter could lead citizens to think that Member States were somehow responsible.
Looking ahead, he encouraged the Commission to be daring: "Now it is time for this Commission to adopt a mature approach, and, having Jacques Delors in mind as its model, to be very proactive and to come forward with ambitious proposals to be presented to citizens, even if they are not all already agreed by the Member States. Citizens have a key role to play in the solution and when they are supportive, agreement from Member States will follow."
Please find the recording of the webinar at this link.
Opening picture: The European Economic And Social Committee, based in Brussels. Photo by Andrijko Z/Wikimedia Commons