Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg,
The COVID-19 outbreak confronts the European Union with a severe crisis, affecting both individual EU citizens’ lives and society as a whole. Due to its role and centrality in the EU’s institutional framework, the European Council is once again called upon to exercise its crisis-management role. Similarities can be drawn with past crises as regards both short and long-term responses. The main difference to previous crises, for instance, in the economy or on migration, which impacted a limited number of EU policies, is that the COVID-19 crisis touches the entire spectrum of policies at both European and national level, making a common response more challenging, as competences are divided between the different strata of the EU’s multi-level governance system. Ultimately, this crisis has the potential to reshape EU policies, leading to increased cross-policy cooperation and possibly a centrally coordinated response mechanism.
European Council’s crisis-management role
The European Council’s crisis-management role developed over time, outside the Treaty framework, as a result of successive EU crises in the past decade. Although not Treaty-based, both academics and practitioners consider crisis management as the European Council’s main role. Between 2009 and 2016, the European Council has had to respond to several severe crises – economic, migration or foreign policy related – and has been operating de facto in a ‘permanent state of crisis’. Sometimes, as in the case of the migration and Ukrainian crises, it has had to address multiple crises simultaneously. These various emergencies are diverse in both their cause and impact on the EU’s development. Jointly however, they have resulted in the consolidation of the centrality of the European Council at the heart of the EU institutional system. They have also shown that there are cases, such as the economic governance and Ukraine crises, when only the Heads of State or Government can swiftly and efficiently reach political agreement on highly sensitive matters.
European Council response to the COVID-19 outbreak
A disease first reported in China in December 2019, COVID-19 presents the European Council with a crisis on a far larger scale than ever before. Its rapid worldwide spread, causing mild to severe respiratory distress, led the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise the contamination risk to ‘very high’ on 28 February 2020, characterise the outbreak as a pandemic from 11 March 2020, and encourage governments worldwide to step up their individual and collective response.
However, the European Council only returned to crisis mode to discuss COVID-19 on 10 March 2020, when the situation in Italy was already extremely difficult and other Member States, including Spain and France, faced rising infection rates. This tardy reaction shows the nature of the crisis and its impact on the EU as a whole has been under-estimated. It also illustrates the failure to anticipate the size of the crisis and its implications at individual, societal, healthcare system and economy levels.
Read the complete briefing on ‘The European Council as COVID-19 crisis manager: A comparison with previous crises‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.