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Interview with Petra De Sutter on the COVID-19 crisis in Europe

D 2 April 2020    


30.03.2020 - Interview with Member of the European Parliament Petra De Sutter for the European Greens (Groen - Belgium)

Every year, the European Network organizes actions on 7 April. 7 April is World Health Day. We call it the Day of Action against the Commercialization of Health. At the same time we also try to reach our European representatives with our analyses and demands. This year, we planned a conference in the European Parliament together with Petra De Sutter on the accessibility of health. But the CODIV-19 crisis was one step ahead of us. As an alternative on our annual actions we are organizing a white sheet action and submitted a number of questions to Petra De Sutter, who answered our questions very willingly. She gives us some working points for which the European Greens, in response to this sanitary crisis, will fight for within the European Parliament.

RescEU of the EC
On Friday 6 March, during the hospital social dialogue, DG Health Frank van Loock said that 20 European countries will start buying together safety equipment for healthcare workers. The trade unions made it clear that at that time there was already a shortage. Every day counts. Prevention is a key factor in reducing costs. The European Commission decided only on the 19th of March to create a strategic rescEU stockpile of medical equipment such as ventilators and protective masks to help EU countries in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Why did it take so long for the EC to set up this rescEU fund?
  • What will be the place of the European Parliament in the management of the ResEU-Fund?
  • What is missing today to ensure that European elected representatives have a real competence to intervene on health issues?
  • Can the current crisis have repercussions in this respect?
  • What can be done collectively to achieve this?

The EC is being blamed for doing ’too little, too late’, but this critique should be put in context. While EU institutions have a lot of power over some policies, such as trade and competition, EU Member States control many others — including health. EU action in public health is designed to complement and support the actions of the Member States, which have the main responsibility for health policy. It is sad to see how EU Member States have been mainly looking after themselves when tackling the crisis. Nevertheless, the Commission has stepped up and is taking action on several fronts within the confines of their mandate. On top of the launch of the rescEU initiative, there have been several other other public health measures by the commission, including joint procurement efforts, reorienting existing research funding and increasing new funding to find a vaccine and treatment, the set-up of a COVID-19 advisory panel with leading European scientist to provide guidance to the Member States.

COVID-19 is teaching us important lessons. We need more international cooperation and solidarity on health, not only to combat epidemics, but also to strengthen public health systems within Europe and elsewhere. I hope that health will remain high on the EU agenda after this crisis. Public, free and well-funded healthcare systems are and must remain a backbone of our welfare states and we as Greens will urge the EU to strive for more cooperation among them and for mechanisms to support them further.

Public investment fund of the EC
The European Commission has set up a €25 billion European public investment fund to overcome the consequences of the coronavirus crisis. Could the Parliament guarantee that this budget will really go to health care systems, SMEs and labour markets?

  • What will this fund be used for in concrete terms?
  • What control will Parliament have over the allocation of these resources?
  • What can you, as a parliamentarian, put in place so that these resources do not disappear into the pockets of finance, big industry and multinationals?

The money from the Corona response investment initiative is to be used to speed up investments for the benefit of the health sector, and other vulnerable parts of the economies. Support for workers and healthcare shall also be further addressed through ESF spending. To allow for a a swift approval of the proposal, it was approved by a majority of the European Parliament on Thursday, using the fast-track procedure and using online voting. The European Parliament shows how digital work and voting in urgent cases can reconcile European democracy with the emergency imposed by the virus.

The Greens welcome the Commission’s Corona Response Investment initiative but think that the EU institutions and Member States must go even further and urgently find and deploy every eurocent of unallocated EU budget and mobilise all non-committed money in the EU budget to meet the medical, social and economic needs of the fight against COVID-19. The needs of countries that were already suffering economically before COVID-19 must be given special attention. Within our parliamentary work, Green parliamentarians will collectively ensure that no one is left behind, especially those who are most vulnerable within and on the fringes of our societies.

Budgetary rules of the EC
The European Commission proposes to suspend the European budgetary rules, the sacrosanct Stability and Growth Pact. The measure should allow member states to free up all the financial means necessary to help the sectors hard hit by Covid-19.

  • After this crisis, will the Member States again have to reach a "balance" in their finances?
  • Does this mean that after this crisis Member States will have to cut even more in social protection budgets and public spending?

We, as Greens, share the concern of a return to the logic of austerity to reduce the (increased) public debt. We however do not believe in the recipe of fighting recessions with austerity. If anything, a negative effect on a country’s output does not help relative debt weight, which is always put in a ratio to GDP. The detrimental effect of this recipe became very clear in the aftermath of the financial and subsequent sovereign debt crisis. In a Union where Member States are integrated in an economic, monetary and budgetary union, we may only expect a race to the bottom in terms of social protection. Therefore it is necessary that we also create a Social Union, that we set and enforce social targets at EU level, subject to sanctions comparable to those in place for the macro-economic targets. We as Europe must protect our social welfare economies by setting targets not to destroy them, but to protect and strengthen them.

Increase in Asset Purchase Program (APP) by the ECB
The ECB announced a massive increase (120 +750 billion euro) in its Asset Purchase Program (APP) as the main measure to mitigate the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the EU economy. This AAP consists mainly of the ECB buying back sovereign bonds (government debt) on the EU secondary debt market. In the past, the conditions for the ECB to (re)purchase bonds from a state with a downgraded credit-rating was that this state was subject to an "assistance plan" with the EU and the IMF. As these “assistance plans” were characterised by austerity measures (among others in health care), the ECB’s conditionalities ultimately had a negative impact on health policies.

  • Do you know if the ECB intends to apply such conditionalities again to its APP (i.e. does it intend to bound the repurchase of downgraded bonds to an “aid plan” with the EU/IMF)?
  • And if so, do you intend to question/stop the ECB on the subject so that health budgets are immune from future budget cuts (this is a health crisis!)?

Even though the effect of conditionality has proven to be detrimental for some European societies, one could understand the logic behind it in light of the financial and sovereign debt crisis. It was a logic of accountability and moreover avoiding moral hazard. However, today, faced with the COVID19-crisis, we can hardly say it’s Italy’s or Spain’s fault their economy has crashed. Therefore, I do not believe in ‘the logic’, if any, behind introducing conditionality this time around. Moreover, we, as Greens, support the idea of introducing stronger solidarity tools such as issuing corona-bonds. We must cooperate to protect what we have in common, and that’s not just a currency but also the institution of the welfare state. Especially regarding our public health systems, I hope today’s massive respect for health care workers and the confrontation with the limitations of our health care systems, will translate into more rather than in less future protection and investment.


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