In the past few weeks, Europeans have shown their resilience, ability to act and determination to keep our lives on track whilst mounting a collective response to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been business in full swing, but not as usual.
Extraordinary and unprecedented measures – both economic and social – have been taken. The extremely restrictive social distancing and confinement measures are helping to slow down the spread of the virus and give our health systems a chance to cope. But these measures come at a cost – to our economies, to the functioning of our single market and to people’s basic freedoms. The limitation of civic freedoms and economic development cannot become the norm or it will deeply compromise the future for generations of Europeans.
Although the fight against the virus is still ongoing, it is time we started looking at the ‘what next’. Our strategies for lifting the restrictive measures must be coordinated. The virus does not respect borders meaning uncoordinated measures will be ineffective. If anything is a matter of common European interest and where strong European solidarity is needed, it is here. Our societies are stronger when we take care of one another. Europe is stronger when we pull together. And an absence of solidarity will forever be our Achilles’ heel.
Whilst the timing and exact details may vary across Member States, we need a shared operating framework, which allows coordination across a number of policy areas. This is why the Commission has presented a Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures. The Roadmap sets out recommendations for the Member States on how we can move beyond our initial response to the pandemic and restart community life and the economy. Given how much we still do not know about the virus, it is clear that we must be able to revise our approach in response to new developments. Limiting the spread of the virus will be a battle we may have to wage many times over.
Our common Roadmap must also be about bringing more solidarity. To win this battle, we will need to produce more test-kits, improve treatment protocols and, ultimately, discover the vaccine that will protect us from the virus. This, in turn, should be widely accessible and affordable both in Europe and throughout the world.
If Europe’s Achilles’ heel is the absence of solidarity, its shield is our immeasurable resilience. In The Illiad, Achilles’ shield represents new hope and provides perspective on the ten years of the Trojan war. The shield depicts normal life in peacetime, symbolising the world beyond the battlefield and the crucial lesson that the war is only one aspect of existence. Life as a whole is full of feasts, dances and new harvests. The shield reminds us that this too shall pass, and that life has much more to offer. For me, it reminds me that Europe’s unique and diverse way of life must be restored and rebuilt stronger than before.
Going forward, the resilience of our systems will be essential. First in the area of health but also through the use of our industrial, education, employment, security and economic strategies. The crisis also has a global dimension: it can only be defeated through international coordination and cooperation, to improve our pandemic preparedness. The EU, as the world’s largest donor and a leading economic power, intends to be at the forefront of this effort. President von der Leyen has therefore tasked me with organising an online pledging conference on 4 May, to accelerate work on diagnostics, treatments and the development of a vaccine.
I have read a great deal of criticism of the collective European response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of it fair, some of it exaggerated. All I would ask is that we not judge our Union by how many times it has faltered but by how many times it has gotten back up again. We can only face up to this challenge by bringing our societies and democracies together, not by sowing division.
Without forgetting those we lost and the many still struggling, we must now focus on rebuilding Europe in the aftermath of the pandemic and laying the foundations for later. We will be forever changed by the events of this year, so let it be for the better. And let us be reminded of our resilience, for it is our ultimate protection.