BRUSSELS – Between the ghost of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and the new leadership team facing the budget battle, the European Union seemed to remember 2020 as “annus horribilis”.
Instead, the last-minute trade agreement with the United Kingdom linked to the release of COVID-19 vaccines in the last days of the year has brought a sense of success to the bloc of 27 countries and has brought glimpses of hope to 450 million EU citizens.
After months of chaotic negotiations, the EU will head to 2021 with both a long-term budget and a € 1.83 trillion ($ 2.3 trillion) coronavirus recovery fund that could help EU Member States bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since the world of War
“The European Union has been able to do what has been necessary,” said Fabian Zuleeg, executive director of the European Center for Politics, an independent think tank. “The European Union is ultimately resilient because it brings benefits to its members that members will not want to give up.”
Ursula von der Leyen, a member of the cabinet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has pledged to consider the fight against climate change at the top of her agenda when she took over as President of the EU Executive on 1 December 2019. the pandemic quickly pushed environmental issues into the background.
EU leaders have agreed on more ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions this year, but immediate public health needs and the economic impact of the viral crisis have overshadowed the ambitious green agreement von der Leyen envisioned to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.
In the face of a more pressing crisis, Brussels has shown adaptability.
After several Member States closed their borders in response to the virus and temporarily jeopardized the sacred principle of free movement of persons and goods within the European Visa Waiver Schengen area, the EU ensured the creation of priority corridors enabling the cross-border movement of basic stocks. The bloc has also, with an unprecedented move, relaxed its strict state aid rules so that national governments can help businesses on the brink of collapse.
The real silver end of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly the emergence of a common approach to health, which until this year was the sole responsibility of the Member States.
When the virus hit Europe hard for the first time in March, a critical lack of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers exposed the weaknesses of the EU’s supply chains. In ten months and more than 350,000 virus-related deaths, cooperation between Member States on health issues has never been closer.
The European Commission, led by 27 countries, has teamed up to tackle drug shortages and mask the shortage of vaccines and secure vaccine agreements that have allowed all Member States to launch vaccination programs last week.
European countries have also created new ground by agreeing on joint lending for the first time, while mutating part of the debt to finance a coronavirus recovery program. It was not an easy task. Most Member States first had to overcome the opposition of a group of so-called “modest” countries led by the Netherlands, then faced opposition from Poland and Hungary to secure the overall EU budget, which combined payouts with respect for democratic standards.
The stalemate was broken during the German era in the rotating presidency of the European Council, which defines the EU’s priorities. Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and is due to resign next year, has shown that she continues to be a major energy broker in the EU, even though she has been in politics.
“Her role has been crucial in terms of the (budget) recovery package,” Zuleeg told the . “It was crucial for Germany to take the lead with France and push it across the border.”
Of course, Merkel has not been able to fix all the EU’s problems in six months: the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is at its bottom and the EU has yet to deal with illegal immigration and asylum, which is Europe’s most urgent and politically controversial pre-pandemic issue. .
However, in concluding the British trade agreement, which took place on a furious December, the EU found more ways to bring blush to health in 2021. It has launched an ambitious reform of its e-commerce rules, a move that will put big technology companies heavily fined for breaches, and this week signed a major investment agreement with China.
Bishr El-Touni in Brussels contributed to this report.