The dramatic loss of human life, socio-economic disruption, prolonged imposition of restrictive measures, and numerous lockdowns due to the health emergency caused by covid-19 have affected every nation and what was perceived as the South Asian epidemic slowly became pandemic and has not spared any continent. Today, we all are living with the poignant reality of the ‘new normal’ where we are witnessing countries paying a high price for non-cooperation in response to the virus resulting in minimal use of resources, high spread of the virus between the countries, and, ultimately, a significant loss of innocent lives. However, on the other hand, As John F Kennedy in his speech in 1959 pointed out, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”; this covid19 pandemic has allowed showing more regional integration. It allowed regional organizations to revisit the reasons for creating certain structures. If we look into the functioning of regional alliances and their multi-lateral cooperation during Covid, only a few of them have successfully controlled the scourge of the virus, the European Union (EU) is undoubted, a pioneer in all of them. Hence, the EU has set an ideal example for other regional organizations.
Impact of Covid19 on the European Union member countries
The year 2020 hit Italy badly with the pandemic of Coronavirus and it became the first country to impose the lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. The impact of covid19 on 27 European Union countries is not the same, for instance, Italy, Spain, and France were worst affected whereas the other member countries comparatively recorded a smaller number of covid19 cases. Speaking of Europe as a whole, since the first recorded European death in France on February 15, 2020, as of October 2021, there have been 1,353,954 deaths across the whole of Europe due to COVID-19. Besides, the emergence of this transboundary health emergency has also highlighted the obstacles faced by the European Union (EU) in supporting the inter-state coordination of Member countries. For example, countries like Belgium, Italy, and Spain have suffered severely due to the lack of immediate response. On a per-capita basis, Belgium has been the worst-hit country in Europe; with a population of around 11.6 million, it registered over 1.3 million infections and 25000 deaths. Furthermore, EU member countries also showed major differences in the economic impact of covid19 with some being severely impacted and some on the other hand comparatively less.
Measures taken by the European Union
The EU’s preliminary reaction to COVID-19 has been criticized for delays in early response to the pandemic and recently for the sluggish inoculation rollout. Despite all these impediments, at the time of the state of emergencies in several European Nations, the EU has worked quite efficiently in flattening the curve of the rising infections. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, a nodal agency of the European Union for disease and epidemic control is playing an instrumental role in getting a grip over the Covid. The ECDC’s early modeling of potential scenarios and consequences along with early identification of issues that needed to be addressed for getting a grip over the spread was commended around the world.
The European Union member states have crafted several social, political, economic, and public health policies to tackle the challenges imposed by the pandemic. Speaking of economic policies, a Recovery Plan for Europe was initiated. This recovery plan, enforced on 21 July 2020, contains a €750 billion recovery effort to tackle the implications of the Covid19 pandemic. Furthermore, EU leaders also agreed on a €1 074.3 billion long-term EU budget for the term 2021-2027. The budget is aimed to support investment in digital and green transitions and resilience. Additionally, on 11 February 2021, the EU established the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) which is at the heart of Next Generation EU, establishing €672.5 billion to support the member states to meet the economic and social crisis caused by the pandemic. Besides, a package of €540 billion was designed to support workers, businesses, and member states. The EU had also established temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency (SURE) to help people keep their job during the crisis. On the other hand, the European Investment Bank (EIB) Group launched a €25 billion pan-European guarantee fund to provide loans up to €200 billion for companies, especially the SMEs throughout the EU. The European Union has also redirected cohesion funds, amended its budget, and also established support measures for severely affected sectors, e.g., Transport, Agriculture, and fisheries.
Furthermore, the EU has been funding research projects on vaccine curation and improving testing. At Global Health Summit in Rome, on 21 May 2021, President Von der Leyen said: “Team Europe takes its responsibility in helping the world fight the virus, everywhere. Vaccination is key – that’s why it is essential to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines to countries worldwide. We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year.” The European Union has also extended its support to eight Southeast Asian countries by joining hands with World Health Organization and providing €20 million. The WHO will continue to use these funds for strengthening preparedness for future pandemics in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Additionally, an ASEAN- European Union ministerial video conference was organized which aimed at discussing both immediate and long-term measures, to increase trade and investment. Plus, a Joint- Appeal was made by European and African leaders to include an immediate moratorium on all debt payments, public and private, until the pandemic is over.
While the European Union has long been the most developed model for regional cooperation, it was challenged by the covid-19 to shape regional as well as international cooperation to resolve the implications of the crisis.
There have also been attempts by other regional organizations, including ASEAN, African Union, Gulf Cooperation Council to tackle these challenges but they have not been as successful as the European Union to achieve success resembling that of the EU. Speaking alone of ASEAN, Before Covid-19, Southeast Asia ranked among the most rapidly developing, industrializing, and urbanizing parts of the world. However, in the first half of 2020, regional growth contracted sharply to 0.5%, the lowest rate since 1967. Although ASEAN leaders realise that the COVID19 pandemic is imposing a serious challenge, ASEAN is yet to respond forcefully. Much of the agreements of ASEAN, such as the ‘whole-of-ASEAN community approach’ and a common COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, remain on paper, the EU on other hand, has implemented a more comprehensive and tangible response which provides an ideal model, not only for ASEAN but for other regional organizations as well.
The European Union, through its policies such as a region-wide aid package, its commitment to provide economic support to other regional organizations, for instance, extending support to ASEAN by committing a total of EUR350–400 million, etc, has once again proved that the European Union has shown global leadership and reinforced collaborative regional management of pandemic. The devasting covid19 pandemic gave a unique opportunity to take regionalism to boost regional cooperation and further increase inter-regional cooperation by collaborating with other regional organisations. The European Union has maintained a balance between the individual national response of member countries and a collaborative collective regional response to tackle the challenges of covid19, indicating solidarity and building trust in the region. The success of the European Union in providing leadership in the region has set an example to the world and propelled covid19 as the driver of regional cooperation in Europe, and undoubtedly, has set an ideal model for the rest of the world by redefining the model of regional cooperation through its policy implementation.