At a time when every government in Europe is concentrating on its population, the EU institutions are fighting for their relevance. The President of the Commission is also trying to regain stature.
A huge banner hangs in front of the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission. “For a Union that wants to achieve more” is written on it – in Dutch, French, and English. It is the motto of German Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who never left any doubt that she wanted to achieve a lot.
When the banner was unrolled when she took office on December 1, Europe was not yet aware of a corona pandemic, and von der Leyen planned, among other things, to make the continent “climate neutral” by 2050. The so-called “green deal”, which would have meant a “green” restructuring of the industrial landscape and a transition to the circular economy, was to become one of their trademarks. With solemn solemnity, the European Commission chief called him “man on the moon moment”.
Since the Corona crisis reached the Berlaymont, of course little has remained. According to an internal commission paper, parts of the “Green Deal” be moved, including a reforestation program and one for the expansion of offshore wind energy in Europe. One is currently concentrating entirely on the fight against the virus and the economic consequences of the pandemic, according to Brussels. Other ambitious projects are also on hold. The moon drivers have to be patient.
Delayed crisis manager
The “President of the Announcements”, as the “Eastern Herald Newspaper” von der Leyen called it, has become a crisis manager – albeit a late one. When, during a press conference on March 9th, she certified that she had done a good job for her first 100 days in office, but never mentioned the virus, Italy had more than 230 deaths. At this point, however, the licensed doctor could have known how dangerous the pandemic could become. After all, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) had already started helping the Italian authorities in the fight against epidemics in early January.
Last Thursday, the Commission President apologized in a moving speech to the victims of the pandemic. “We promise to remember everyone,” she said in front of the almost empty seats in the European Parliament in Brussels: “It is true that at the beginning of the crisis we were not enough for Italy to help.” The summoning to have learned from the crisis was followed by a list of what had been achieved: EU states had already provided economic aid worth three trillion euros, said von der Leyen. Further aid would follow, for example in the form of an investment program worth billions, a “Marshall Plan for Europe”.
The fact that von der Leyen did too little and reacted too late is the criticism the German has had to deal with for weeks. But are the allegations justified? For the European expert, Nicolai von Ondarza from the Berlin Science and Politics Foundation, the crisis assessment of the most important EU authority and her boss is very mixed. After initially falling into “shock shock” when the member states decided to stop exporting medical protective equipment and closing the borders, von der Leyen finally reacted and at least ensured free movement of goods and a procurement program for urgently needed medical goods.
After the “Green Deal” a “White Deal”
In a third phase, in which we are currently, Brussels has already lost control, believes von Ondarza. The Commission did not find any common line on the question of corona bonds, i.e. the communitization of debts. And the Commission is also running after the Member States with a common exit strategy to relax the corona requirements.
However, even the most ambitious EU top politician could do little to change the fact that national emergencies are always times of the executive and that the Commission has nothing to say about health care. If anything should change, the nation-states would have to give up competencies again. An almost hopeless endeavor when, as the corona crisis, it is literally about life and death.
In this situation, von der Leyen, as President, remained true to the announcements when, in an interview with “Zeit” in early April, she started a “white deal”. The “green deal”, she said, is and will remain important, but should be supplemented by a white component, based on the color of the medicine: “We are now realizing that health is as much a public good as a tolerable climate.” Saving the planet and health, at least that sounded promising.