On 29 June 2021, GLOBSEC in cooperation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation organised a discussion that focused on what can be done to solve the complex post-COVID-19 challenges that Europe now faces.
The panellists included:
- Melanie Huml, Minister, European and International Affairs, Bavarian State Chancellery, Member, Bavarian State Parliament
- Katarína Cséfalvayová, Director, Institute for Central Europe, former Chairwoman for the Foreign Affairs Committee, National Council, Slovakia
- Ivan Mikloš, President, MESA10, former Minister of Finance, Slovakia
- Ivan Štefanec, Member of the European Parliament, Slovakia
- Jakub Wiśniewski, Vice President, GLOBSEC (Introductory Remarks)
- Markus Ehm, Director of the Regional Project Central Europe, Hanns Seidel Foundation (Moderator)
As the Covid-19 pandemic comes under control across Europe, the discussion of post-pandemic recovery has become increasingly more pertinent. The conversation among panellists during the webinar focused on two key aspects of European recovery: trust and cooperation.
In his opening remarks, Jakub Wiśniewski underlined the confusion experienced by many EU citizens regarding the pandemic, vaccinations, and what to do to stay safe. The lack of coordination between different levels of governance has caused an erosion of trust and security that must now be rebuilt. Opinions on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic vary across countries and among citizens of the EU. Due to the often lagging reactions to and management of the pandemic by the EU, some citizens have lost trust in the EU institutions as a whole. As highlighted by Katarina Cséfalvayová, there has been a decline in support for the EU, in Germany for example, as citizens have gradually begun to view the EU system as failing. She further pointed out that initially, national coverage of the EU pandemic response was generally negative, however, when the response eventually proved to be successful, coverage did not become positive. The trend of national leaders taking responsibility only when things go well and blaming or criticizing the EU and its institutions when things are going poorly has become prominent in recent years, and this was no exception during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mrs Cséfalvayová also stressed that there was widespread disinformation which caused citizens to believe to a number of hoaxes, or that countries outside of the Union, like China, were helping member states more than the EU. This has shown that the EU is still struggling with tackling disinformation. Panellists emphasized that politicians need to actively take more responsibility when it comes to communication and disinformation, or trust will only further disintegrate.
When addressing the post-pandemic recovery, panellists stated that the EU and its member states need to use a common language, common management, have common goals, and common practices. Ivan Štefanec emphasized that it is necessary that national and European level administrations have the same objectives for the recovery. However, the panellists stated, it is important to note that while smaller countries, like Slovakia, have suffered during the pandemic, without the EU the situation would have been much more difficult for them, pointing at the vaccine’s procurement, for example. Further, the support from other EU member states was valuable to smaller countries who needed additional assistance in the healthcare sector during the pandemic, with many member states sending medical equipment and healthcare providers to aid in the fight against the pandemic. Now that vaccine rollout is underway, it is important that regional governments cooperate with national and EU level administrations to ensure that distribution is coordinated. Currently, rural areas are lagging behind in vaccination rates, and it is imperative that these areas are not forgotten or neglected. It is also important that the EU helps the Neighbourhood outside of the Union that have lower vaccination rates, if not, the panellists warned, then the pandemic will continue to affect the EU socially and economically.
While it has been argued that the EU response to vaccine development initially took too long, the cooperation between member states on research for the vaccine and a united European approach was crucial to fight the pandemic. This cooperation was key to move forward with EU recovery and will remain an essential part of the recovery process. While the number of infections is currently on a downward trend in the EU, it is important to ensure that every citizen gets vaccinated so that the EU can guarantee safety to all of its citizens. Moreover, the need for trust and cooperation does not exist only between member states and the EU, member states and member states, or the EU and its citizens, but also between the citizens of various member states. Vaccination is necessary across the union to ensure that EU citizens can trust that one another have been vaccinated and that their travel across borders is secure.
Although the pandemic has caused fear for their health, many citizens have also feared for their jobs. Unfortunately, economic partnerships were neglected in favour of protecting internal needs. Although this was necessary at the time, the panellists argue that post-pandemic economic rebuilding should become an essential pillar of the recovery plan in the EU. A comprehensive post-pandemic recovery plan is vital. “There is no such thing as going back to normal” stated Katarina Cséfalvayová, the pandemic is only one part of a wider spectrum of change and challenges that the EU and its member states are currently facing. Ivan Mikloš stated that the pandemic revealed that there is divergence, not just between and among member states, but also inside the member states, while Melanie Huml emphasized that it is key that EU member states, “act on equal footing” and be responsible partners in the rebuilding process. This is not the time to be in competition with one another, rather the focus should be on the competition with states outside of the EU. It is clear now, stated Ivan Mikloš, that we need to be better prepared in the future – not just on a regional or national level, but also on the EU and global level. Increased coordination is key to ensure that when another pandemic/crisis occurs, we are prepared and ready to respond instantaneously. Leaders need to show their professionalism, competency, and responsibility at every level of government.
Mr Mikloš emphasized that countries with more robust reforms and benefits (e.g., responsible economic policies, and public finance tools) prior to the pandemic appear to have responded and rebounded better. The countries which are currently lagging behind on their recovery, which could potentially put the sustainability of the eurozone into question, will need more reforms to successfully recover. The panellists agree that it is also essential to integrate the digital advancements made over the course of the pandemic as part of the EU rebuilding project. The pandemic forced everyone to change the way they communicate, including politicians. It is now necessary to learn how to use and incorporate new technologies to improve the lives of citizens.
Regarding economic relations the conversation of borders is essential. The panellists agreed that there is a need for cooperation in the reopening of borders between EU member states. Freedom of movement is absolutely vital for the EU and its member states. Not only have the border closures imposed on the fundamental right EU citizens have, but it also brought back dark memories for some regions – specifically citizens of Central and Eastern Europe who, Melanie Huml suggests, were reminded of their time living under communism. Ms Huml stated that it is more important than ever to work towards fostering good relationships with CEE. When asked by Markus Ehm as to what Bavaria is prioritising in the post-pandemic recovery, Melanie Huml stated that Bavaria is concentrating on its economy, which includes a close and intensive economic relationship with many CEE countries, especially in the automotive industry. She emphasized that the economy is currently amid a transformation and suppliers from CEE need to coordinate in order to effectively develop together.
In their closing statements panellists highlighted that the EU and its member states must put all their effort into recovery. Moreover, the EU must focus on not only the recovery of member states following the pandemic but also on restoring the trust in the EU and its institutions. The decision-making processes of the EU can and should still be improved upon and sped up so that future crises can be addressed quickly and effectively.