By Paola Gosio
As stated by Helmut Schmidt “the European Union lives of crises”.  Since its inception, the EU has undergone a series of emergencies of diverse nature that challenged its governance and furthered the debate on intergovernmentalism versus supranationalism. The Coronavirus outbreak arose in this context, which seems to represent the latest crossroads in front of which it will be possible to assess whether the European Union will be able to expand its competences, specifically in the public health sector, to be able to manage future crisis situations in this area.
The coronavirus pandemic was indeed first and foremost a health crisis. However, due to the subsidiarity principle reigning in the EU, the European institutions could not intervene in the public health matters of every Member State. This, because public health measures are primarily a Member State competence, and therefore the Union can only be called upon to perform an additional and/or auxiliary action, but without replacing EU Governments.
The first months of the crisis were marked by a lack of coordination among Member States in terms of public health measures. Yet, the EU could not force EU Governments to take different actions, but only make use of the several instruments in its hands to assist and support Member States. Consequently, the EU’s response focused on the following priorities: limiting the spread of the virus, ensuring the provision of medical equipment, promoting research for treatments and vaccines, and supporting the economy.
These legitimate auxiliary measures were certainly important to help Member States in their fight against the virus, fostering the research needed to find a vaccine, and funding medical equipment required all around the EU. Nevertheless, such measures could not alone solve Member States’ deficiencies in coordinating their systems on health measures and help each other. As declared by President von der Leyen, “When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit, too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response.”
The inefficiency of Member States to coordinate their actions in the health sector, and to provide an immediate response and reciprocal support from the beginning of the crisis was unavoidably felt also by Europeans, who suffered from the slow and uncoordinated actions in this matter. Consequently, more European citizens began to ask for an expansion of EU competences, to enable the Union to take greater measures in the future.
A survey commissioned by the European Parliament at the end of May revealed that almost six out of ten respondents were dissatisfied with the solidarity demonstrated among EU member states during the pandemic. Accordingly, a good share of respondents (69%) agreed that “the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the Coronavirus pandemic”.
As a result, by July 2020 the Commission opened the debate on the potential expansion of EU competences in health matters, with the Commissioner for Health declaring in this regard “Many – including […] our citizens – are calling for a stronger role for the EU on health. I cannot but agree – and say that I stand ready to work on this together.” He later added that the pandemic had “ shown very clearly that the EU needs more capacity to support Member States […] We need a stronger mandate to coordinate.”
Whether the Commission will obtain more competences in the public health sector, thereby strengthening supranationalism, is yet to be seen. What is certain is that the current crisis has unveiled inefficiencies that could be solved if dealt with at supranational level. In this context, the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe has been hinted as the ideal forum to debate this matter and see whether increasing the Union’s power can become a reality or is bound to remain a mere mirage.
 Helmut Schmidt, Bundestagsreden und Zeitdokumente, (Bonn:Bertelsmann Verlag, 1975), 249.
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