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The EU’s Response to COVID-19

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The European Commission is working on all fronts to support efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes ongoing coordination with Member States to share information, assess needs and ensure a coherent EU-wide response. The Commission is also funding research, offering support through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and supporting China with emergency medical supplies to tackle the outbreak at its source.

What has the Commission been doing since the outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in China?

1) At EU level, under the Cross-border Health Threat Decision, the Commission coordinates with Member States through three key mechanisms:

  1.     The Early Warning and Response System
  2.     The Health Security Committee
  3.     The Health Security Committee’s Communicators’ network.

These tools support cooperation, rapid exchange of information, swift monitoring and coordination of preparedness and response measures to COVID-19.

2) The Commission, with support from relevant EU agencies, in particular the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), is providing technical guidance related to: risk assessments; case definition for diagnosis and aligned reporting of suspected and confirmed cases; infection prevention and control in health care settings; advice for travellers; updated information on therapeutics and vaccines; contact tracing on aircrafts; management of points of entry and aviation sector recommendations.

Moreover, Member States’ Joint Action Healthy Gateways, funded by the EU, is providing guidance and training on points of entry measures, as well as another Joint Action, SHARP (strengthened international health regulations and preparedness in the EU) on laboratory preparedness.

3) The Commission has been coordinating the delivery of assistance to China as well as financing the transport costs of EU Member States’ repatriation flights.

4) To boost global preparedness, prevention and containment of the virus, new funding worth €232 million will be allocated to different sectors, namely:

– €114 million will support the World Health Organization (WHO), in particular the global preparedness and response global plan. This intends to boost public health emergency preparedness and response work in countries with weak health systems and limited resilience. Part of this funding is subject to the agreement of the EU budgetary authorities. 

– €15 million are planned to be allocated in Africa, including to the Institute Pasteur Dakar, Senegal to support measures such as rapid diagnosis and epidemiological surveillance.

– €100 million, out of which up to €90 million Public Private Partnership with the pharmaceutical industry and 10 million for research on epidemiology, diagnostics, therapeutics and clinical management in containment and prevention. *

– €3 million allocated to the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for repatriation flights of EU citizens from Wuhan, China.

Is the EU prepared and equipped to contain the spread of COVID-19?

Member States continuously inform the Commission and share information regarding their levels of preparedness.

According to the information provided by the national authorities, there is a strong overall level of preparedness with countries having response measures in place to provide treatment for the cases in the EU and to mitigate any further transmission within and into the EU.  

On 13 February, an extraordinary EPSCO Health Council brought together all Member States at a political level to discuss and coordinate measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak and further preparedness measures to be considered for the future.

In response to the Council Conclusions of this meeting, the key actions on which the Commission is in the process of following up include continued risk assessment and guidance on travel advice; increased preparedness should the outbreak escalate to the next phase; and activation of existing funding mechanisms to support Member States on preparedness and response to the COVID-19. Other key actions include examining joint procurement for potential needs of protective equipment and strengthened support to the Health Security Committee in providing aligned information across the EU on the virus, detection, use of equipment, etc.

How is the Commission supporting the repatriation of EU nationals from China?

The European Commission has a 24/7 Emergency Response Coordination Centre that is coordinating repatriation flights with EU Member States.

The Commission provides funding to EU Member States to cover up to 75% of the transport costs of these repatriation flights via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has facilitated the repatriation of 447 EU citizens from Wuhan, China. In late January, two French aircraft brought back 346 EU citizens, while Germany also conducted one repatriation flight, which brought back 101 EU citizens.

A third repatriation flight was organised by France, repatriating more than 70 EU citizens who were still in Wuhan.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism also co-financed the last leg from London to the respective Member States of 95 EU citizens brought back on a UK repatriation flight.

Also under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, Italy sent two planes for the repatriation of EU citizens quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise that had been docked in Yokohama, Japan, since early February.

What is the EU doing to support China?

The European Commission coordinates the delivery of emergency medical supplies to China through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

As of 21 February, over 30.5 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China has been provided by France, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Estonia. The transport costs were co-financed by the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

  • The first 12 tonnes came as an immediate first offer of assistance, via the first repatriation flights from France and Germany in late January.
  • On 14 February, Italy sent 1.5 tonnes of protective overalls and masks to the Chinese Red Cross in Beijing.
  • On 19 February, France sent a plane to Wuhan with a 20-tonne cargo of surgical masks, gloves, thermometers and disinfectant, which also included material from Latvia and Estonia.
  • On 23 February, an Austrian aircraft departed from Vienna with protective equipment which included masks, gloves, protective clothing and disinfectant.

The Commission stands ready to provide any further assistance to China.

The European Emergency Response Coordination Centre continues to reach out to Member States to map potential contributions of personal protective equipment that will be delivered to China in the near future.

How is the public health risk in Europe evaluated as regards COVID-19?

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is monitoring the outbreak through epidemic intelligence activities, and provides risk assessments to guide EU Member States and the European Commission in their response activities. The ECDC is in continuous contact with the European Commission, the public health authorities in the EU Member States, China and other countries and the World Health Organization for the assessment of this outbreak. ECDC also publishes daily summaries and risk assessments for EU citizens.

What EU-funded research is ongoing on COVID-19?

On 31 January, the Commission launched a request for expressions of interest for research proposals on the novel coronavirus. A budget of €10 million is made available for research that will improve clinical care of patients infected with the virus, as well as the overall public health response. The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) announced its plan for a fast-track call for proposals on the novel coronavirus to be launched in early March. 

In addition, the EU already funds several ongoing research projects that have reoriented their focus to address the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, the PREPARE project ensures research preparedness of clinical treatment sites and the use of harmonised research protocols across Europe through their network of 3,000 hospitals and 900 laboratories in 42 countries. Another EU-funded project, the European Virus Archive GLOBAL (EVAg) has already made available more than 1,000 kits that support the diagnosis of the novel coronavirus, to 79 countries worldwide.

The Commission coordinates with the World Health Organization and other research funders to ensure that research gaps are covered. This happens mainly through the “Global research collaboration for infectious disease preparedness” (GloPID-R) network, the secretariat of which is EU funded. A global research and innovation forum was organised by the World Health Organization and GloPID-R on 11-12 February, to identify research priorities across 10 different thematic areas.

Are food products imported from China safe?

There has been no report of transmission of COVID-19 via food. Therefore, there is no evidence that food items imported into the European Union in accordance with the applicable animal and public health regulations governing imports from China pose a risk for the health of EU citizens in relation to COVID-19.

Moreover, due to the animal health situation in China, only a few products of animal origin are authorised for import into the EU from China, on the condition that they meet strict health requirements and have been subjected to controls.

Is there a vaccine available?

The Commission, with relevant EU agencies, is actively engaged in the arena of therapeutics and vaccine developments. At this stage, the Commission is focusing its funding efforts on research with a timely impact on the current public health emergency due to COVID-19, including on the development of diagnostics and therapeutics. This is in line with the Commission’s emergency research funding of €10 million that was made available at the early stages of the outbreak. Vaccine development is addressed through CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation), an initiative the Commission contributes to.

Background

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, previously named 2019-nCoV, was identified in China at the end of 2019 and is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously known in humans.

Where do Coronaviruses come from?

Coronaviruses are viruses that circulate among animals but some of them are also known to affect humans. After they have infected humans, transmission can continue between humans.

A wide range of animals is known to be the source of coronaviruses. For instance, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) originated from camels and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) originated from civet cats.

What is the mode of transmission? How (easily) does it spread?

While animals are the source of the virus, COVID-19 is now spreading from one person to another (human-to-human transmission). There is currently not enough epidemiological information to determine how easily and sustainably this virus is spreading between people. It seems to be transmitted mainly via respiratory droplets that people sneeze, cough or exhale. The incubation period for COVID-19 (i.e. the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms) is currently estimated at five to six days, ranging up to 14 days.

While it is known that the virus can be transmitted when an infected individual has symptoms, there are still uncertainties regarding whether mild or asymptomatic cases can transmit the virus. If people with COVID-19 are tested and diagnosed in a timely manner and rigorous infection control measures are applied, the likelihood of sustained human-to-human transmission in community settings in the EU/EEA is low. Systematic implementation of infection prevention and control measures were effective in controlling SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

From what we know so far, the virus can cause mild, flu-like symptoms such as

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • pain in the muscles and
  • tiredness.

More serious cases develop severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis and septic shock that can lead to the death of the patient. People with existing chronic conditions seem to be more vulnerable to severe illness.

Is there a treatment for the disease caused by COVID-19?

There is no specific treatment for this disease so the approach used to treat patients with coronavirus-related infections is to treat the clinical symptoms (e.g. fever). Supportive care (e.g. supportive therapy and monitoring, oxygen therapy, fluid management and antivirals) can be highly effective for those infected.

Is there a vaccine against COVID-19?

There are currently no vaccines against coronaviruses, including COVID-19. That is why it is very important to prevent infection or contain the further spread after an infection.

EU Politics

Towards a stronger and more resilient Schengen area

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The first ever Schengen Forum, convened today by the Commission, allowed for constructive exchanges towards building a stronger and more resilient Schengen area. The videoconference gathered Members of the European Parliament and Home Affairs Ministers with the aim of fostering cooperation and political dialogue and rebuilding trust.  

Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Today’s discussions showed a strong collective commitment to preserve and strengthen Schengen. For the last 35 years, we have built an entire Schengen architecture to better protect the area without controls at internal borders. And we must continue to build on and improve that architecture going forward.” 

Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has shown how much we need Schengen. Moving freely within the EU is a daily necessity for millions of Europeans for work or school for instance. It’s also crucial for companies transporting goods around Europe. Schengen can be our lifeline when it comes to Europe’s economic recovery post-coronavirus. That is why our discussions today on building a more resilient Schengen are so important.”  

The discussions focused on: 

Improving the mechanism to evaluate the implementation of the Schengen rules: Options for operational improvements as well as legislative changes to the mechanism were discussed for better monitoring, quicker and more efficient identification of possible deficiencies and effective follow up. 

Finding a way forward on the revision of the Schengen Borders Code: Participants discussed possible ways forward to improve the current Schengen rules, with the shared objective of overcoming existing internal border controls and ensuring that any possible reintroduction of controls at internal borders in the future is proportionate, used as a measure of last resort and for a limited period of time. 

Better managing the EU’s external borders: Participants stressed the need for quickly putting in place the Entry/Exit System (EES) and the European Traveller Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). These systems complement existing databases such as the Schengen Information System or the Visa Information System, which need to be used in full. The ongoing work towards ensuring that information systems for migration, border management and security become interoperable by 2023 was highlighted as crucial to give border guards the information they need to know who is crossing the EU’s borders. The deployment of the European Border and Coast Guard standing corps starting from January 2021 will also provide increased support to Member States’ border guards whenever and wherever needed. 

Enhancing police cooperation and information exchange: Common and coordinated European action, for instance through increased police cooperation, better information exchange and better use of new technologies, is crucial to guarantee security within the Schengen area. Police checks can also constitute an effective alternative to the reintroduction of border controls. Measures such as joint patrols, joint investigation teams, cross-border hot pursuits or joint threat analysis were discussed as being alternatives to effectively address threats to security.  

Strengthening the governance of the Schengen area: Regular meetings of the Schengen Forum, based on reports provided by the Commission, will help ensure the political involvement of all relevant players.  

Next steps  

Today’s discussions are the first step in an inclusive political debate towards building a stronger Schengen area based on mutual trust. They will feed into the Schengen Strategy that the Commission intends to present in mid-2021.  

Following today’s first videoconference, the Schengen Forum will continue to meet regularly both at political or technical levels. The next meeting of the Forum at political level will take place in spring 2021, ahead of the presentation of the Strategy for a stronger Schengen area. Targeted consultations at technical level will also take place with representatives from the European Parliament and national authorities over the next months.  

Background  

35 years ago, 5 Member States agreed to remove border controls between themselves. Today, the Schengen area encompasses 26 European States with over 400 million citizens and it is a key policy of the European Union. It underpins the seamless functioning of the EU internal market in goods and services and has allowed Europeans to organise their private and professional lives around unfettered travel around Europe. 

Schengen rules require an update to adapt them to evolving challenges. The pandemic, security concerns, and migration management issues have led Member States to reintroduce internal border checks. To address these challenges and build a more resilient Schengen area, the Commission announced in September this year the creation of a Schengen Forum to foster operational cooperation and stronger confidence in the rules.   

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EU Politics

MEPs condemn Turkey’s activities in Varosha, Cyprus, and call for sanctions

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Turkey’s decision to “open” the sealed-off suburb of Varosha undermines prospects of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, warn MEPs.

In a resolution adopted by 631 votes in favour, 3 against and 59 abstentions, MEPs condemn Turkey’s illegal activities in the Varosha suburb of the city of Famagusta and warn that its partial “opening” weakens prospects of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, exacerbating divisions and entrenching the permanent partition of the island.

MEPs call on Turkey to transfer Varosha to its lawful inhabitants under the temporary administration of the UN (in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 550 (1984)) and to refrain from any actions that alter the demographic balance on the island through a policy of illegal settlement.

Tough sanctions against Turkey

A sustainable solution to reunify the island of Cyprus and its people can only be found through dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiations, MEPs stress. They call on the European Council to maintain its unified position on Turkey’s illegal actions and impose tough sanctions in response.

MEPS regret that the Turkish authorities have endorsed the two-state solution for Cyprus and reiterate their support for a fair, comprehensive and viable settlement on the basis of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation with a single international legal status. They also call on the EU to play a more active role in bringing the negotiations under UN auspices to a successful conclusion.

Tense EU-Turkey relations

As Turkey distances itself more and more from European values and standards, EU-Turkey relations are at a historic low, warns Parliament. Its illegal and unilateral military actions in the Eastern Mediterranean infringe on the sovereignty of EU member states Greece and Cyprus. MEPs also point out Turkey’s direct support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as its actions in Libya and Syria.

Background

The Turkish army fenced off Varosha immediately after the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The Greek Cypriots who fled from Varosha were not allowed to return and with public entry prohibited, Varosha has effectively become a ghost town.

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EU Politics

Commission and EBRD promote innovative use of data in public procurement involving EU funds

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The European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Open Contracting Partnership are joining forces to improve the quality and transparency of public tenders co-funded by EU funds in Greece and Poland. Thanks to their support, two pilot projects will provide expertise and hands-on support to public authorities in both countries, with a focus on digital innovation.

By promoting the smart use of innovation and open data, the two pilots will help public administrations to better plan, implement and monitor the procurement of works, goods and services. This will improve the use of public resources and increase opportunities for businesses, especially for small and medium companies (SMEs). Moreover, thanks to a cooperation with local civil society organisations, this initiative will also favour transparency of public spending and stimulate citizens’ participation in the monitoring of investments with a direct impact on the community, such as investments in sustainability, local development and social inclusion. 

The two pilot projects

  • In Greece, the project will aim at consolidating and integrating all databases into a single smart public contract register. This will enable online access for bidders and citizens, improve quality of data and facilitate the use of data-driven analytical tools for monitoring the procurement process.
  • In Poland, the initiative will support Polish national and local authorities to introduce open data in public procurement and promote automated collection, standardisation, and consolidation of procurement data on all tenders.

The two pilots will run until the end of 2021 and their results will be disseminated in order to ensure a successful roll out in other Member States.

Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said: “In the programming period 2021-2027, Cohesion policy will continue to support Member States and regions in their economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic, as well as boosting competitiveness through new investments in research and innovation, digital transition and the implementation of the European Green Deal agenda. Through the use of new technologies, national and local public authorities managing EU funds will be able to spend public money more effectively ensuring the best possible results for citizens and businesses”.

Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, added: “Transparency in public procurement is essential to ensure efficiency of public investments, in line with the EU strategic policy goals aiming at a greener, digital and more resilient Europe. Public authorities can rely on the EU’s public procurement framework, tools like the electronic procurement systems and open data for an efficient use of public funds.”

The EBRD Vice-President, Pierre Heilbronn commented: “The EBRD is committed to support legal and institutional reforms aimed at ensuring that procurement laws and practices are modern, in line with international standards and can swiftly respond to emerging challenges. Together with Open Contracting Partnership, we are sharing the experience of successful civil society procurement monitoring based on open data. Our joint efforts aim to create a framework for enlisting civil society organisations to support public procurement reforms and use open data to monitor procurement.”

Background

In the context of the next long-term EU budget, more than €370 billion from Cohesion policy funds will be invested to support the digital and green transitions of the Member States. Every year, public authorities in the EU spend around 14% of GDP on public procurement, amounting to more than €1.9 trillion. Almost half of Cohesion policy funding is channelled through public procurement. The Commission has promoted a series of initiatives aimed at helping Member States to improve the way administrations and beneficiaries use public procurement for EU investments. These include the Integrity Pacts to ensure more efficient and transparent tenders and safeguarding EU taxpayers’ money. The Commission also took action to facilitate citizen engagement for better governance and effective Cohesion policy investments.

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