EU leaders focus on homefront for coronavirus response

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The European Parliament's Louise Weiss Building in Strasbourg, France. Photo by: © European Union 2020 / EP / CC BY

BRUSSELS — European leaders offered no new funding for the global battle against COVID-19 after meeting to discuss the pandemic Thursday, focusing instead on how to keep their own economies afloat.  

It comes amid concerns that money earmarked for poverty eradication programs could be raided to fund the EU’s international response to the pandemic.

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Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, held by video conference, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French parliament that a “financial package” would be forthcoming to support countries outside the EU that would soon need international help, particularly in Africa.

However, in their statement Thursday night, European Union heads of state merely committed “to international cooperation and multilateral solutions in tackling the pandemic and its consequences” and said the EU “will do its utmost to assist countries and communities to fight the COVID-19 crisis.”

The leaders focused mostly instead on internal measures for “a coordinated exit strategy [from the current disruption], a comprehensive recovery plan and unprecedented investment” within the EU.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that Africa has seen a 25% daily increase in reported confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past five days, with 39 countries reporting a total of 216 cases in the previous 24 hours, as the United Nations called for $2 billion to finance the humanitarian response until the end of the year.

The G-20 group of industrialized nations, including leaders of EU institutions, expressed “grave concern” Thursday about the risk of the virus spreading in low-income countries, saying they were “ready to mobilize development and humanitarian financing.” And the heads of the European Council and commission offered to set up an online pledging event to fund a vaccine.

An EU official told Devex that the commission’s development department, DEVCO, is leading efforts “to gather information on what is being done already to help the health and other affected sectors of third countries.” The commission will meet with representatives from EU governments and development agencies Friday to coordinate their response, the official added.

It comes after members of the European Parliament wrote to the commission and EU foreign service this week, urging them to lead global efforts to combat the virus but without using aid money already allocated elsewhere where possible.

“This new challenge requires new resources, in the form of fresh and unallocated funds, so as not to affect the EU’s capacity to support partner countries in other key areas, such as poverty reduction and the strengthening of democratic institutions,” the heads of the budget, development and neighborhood committees wrote.

They requested that new measures related to COVID-19 be financed “primarily” through the annual margin in the bloc’s budget on external spending, designed to cover unforeseen events.

For the 2020 margin of €248 million ($273 million), the commission intends to use €100 million for the Albanian earthquake response, and €45 million for the cost of repatriating EU nationals

Louise Körnung, an adviser to development committee chair Tomas Tobé, told Devex that the remaining €103 million should be used to tackle coronavirus first, “but this does not mean it should be the only option.”

“Redirecting actions within existing programs, or shifting money between different budget lines would be the next step within this year,” Körnung said, also highlighting possible direct contributions from EU countries outside the EU budget.

The commission is yet to respond to the MEPs’ letter. So far, it has announced a €232 million global response package, including €114 million to support the WHO’s global preparedness and response plan, and €15 million to be allocated in Africa, but it was not clear which budget lines this would come from.

Alexei Jones, senior policy officer at the European Center for Development Policy Management think tank, said the EU has limited funding options at this stage, with the 2014-2020 budget period coming to an end and no deal yet for 2021-2027.

“There are no magic bullets but diverting EU aid resources from existing programs, as it occurred for the migration crisis, is not a way to build trust for international partnerships,” Jones told Devex. He highlighted the commission proposal for a “cushion” of roughly €9 billion for the 2021-2027 budget, which is meant to respond to this type of situation. “In a way, this crisis came too soon,” Jones said.

Jeroen Kwakkenbos, senior aid policy and development finance adviser at Oxfam EU, added: “If we are serious about a real partnership with Africa, member states need to do whatever it takes to shore up health systems and public responses in our partner countries.”

Update, April 1: This story was updated to include new figures on the commission’s plans for use of the annual margin on external spending.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.