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Interview with Brando Benifei on the COVID-19 crisis in Europe

D 2 April 2020    


30.03.2020 - Interview with Member of the European Parliament Brando Benifei for the European Socialists & Democrats (Partito Democratico - Italy)

Every year, the European Network organizes actions on 7 April, 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. But the COVID-19 crisis was one step ahead of us. On the occasion of the "white sheet" action on 7 April, which we organize as an alternative to our annual actions, we submitted a number of topical questions to Brando Benifei, italian MEP for the European socialists, who answered our questions willingly. He shines light on how the Socialists will position themselves 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? On February 10th, as Italian Democratic Party MEPs we developed a number of proposals to address the Coronavirus emergency at a European level. Among the proposals, there was the creation of one European purchasing centre to acquire and distribute the materials necessary for prevention and treatment of those affected by the virus. The point of the proposal was to avoid unnecessary and harmful competition in such a delicate moment. We therefore welcome the Commission’s decision to create a strategic rescEU stockpile of medical equipment. This should have been done before. Unfortunately, cooperation between members states takes time. I hope that from this crisis will be able to set up a more efficient and effective system to respond to such emergencies.
  • What will be the place of the European Parliament in the management of the ResEU-Fund? As MEPs, we will supervise the management of ResEU-Fund as we do with all European Commission’s activities, setting up our priorities and putting the need of a coordinated response at the center of the action.
  • What is missing today to ensure that European elected representatives have a real competence to intervene on health issues? Health remains nowadays a matter on which EU has almost no power. EU Member States have to realize that it is now time to coordinate and discuss health policies at a European level, in order to better act in case of crisis, as we are seeing in these days.
  • Can the current crisis have repercussions in this respect? This crisis shows the importance of wider and more concrete EU coordination on health related issues. Viruses don’t know borders. Therefore, I hope that many Member States will now understand what is still lacking at European level, and start a discussion on the need to expand EU powers to prevent and contrast epidemics.
  • What can be done collectively to achieve this? Everyone can play an own role. Member States could push for more EU powers on health through the European Council, while health professional, patients organization and stakeholders can put pressure to EU policy makers requesting to intervene, granting more power to the EU when it comes to health.

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? The fund will be used for Coronavirus-related health expenditure within Member States such as hospital equipment, ventilators and masks. Funds are also allocated to support to SMEs’ working capital and to support national short-term employment schemes in order to contain the economics damages of the emergency.
  • What control will Parliament have over the allocation of these resources? We will make sure that these funds will be granted through unused or fresh resources, without depriving EU programs of the money they need.
  • 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 European Parliament will use all its supervisory powers to ensure that there will be no economic speculation or misuse of the funds allocated in response to the emergency. Not a single euro should be wasted.

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? I believe that the suspension of the budgetary rules in this delicate moment is essential. However, this crisis has already showed us that the instruments we are using are not enough to address the issue in the proper way. At this purpose, some governments (Italian, Spanish, French and so on) and some political forces (S&D for example) are clearly asking the adoption of new tools to address the crisis collectively. It makes me really sad to notice that some Member States have not yet realized that this is the only way to succeed.
  • Does this mean that after this crisis Member States will have to cut even more in social protection budgets and public spending? I will do whatever is possible to avoid this scenario. This crisis shows the importance of public investments in strategic sectors such as health care and social protection. The budgetary rules have to change even when the emergency will be over.

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 characterized 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)? The 2011 crisis showed the ineffectiveness of harsh austerity measures. The coronavirus emergency is having a devastating impact on the European economy. I believe that the only way forward is to address the crisis with massive fiscal stimulus plans, and we are trying to foster a debate in this sense.
  • 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!)? Having a well-equipped and efficient healthcare system should be a key priority for every European country. I hope that this crisis will teach that we can’t sacrifice healthcare spending to abide by European budget rules.


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