What Europe can learn from the coronavirus crisis

12.04.2020 - Article

Article by Heiko Maas, published in the „Welt am Sonntag“

“It could be said that the plague became the affair of us all,” is what we read in the classic work by Albert Camus. This novel is enjoying something of a renaissance as we sense that the coronavirus is affecting us all, around the world. There is still no vaccine, no cure, for anyone. The virus makes no distinction between rich, poor, skin colour and nationality. It can affect anyone and it knows no borders.

Countries worldwide have therefore taken measures that seemed completely unthinkable a few weeks ago. People-to-people contacts have been severely restricted, borders closed, and businesses and air traffic largely shut down.

All this was and continues to be right, because there is nothing more important than saving human lives. Like every country, we have a duty first and foremost to bring the crisis under control at home. Only then can we assist others, as we are doing, for example, by treating seriously ill patients from Italy and France in German hospitals.

In the long term, however, we will only be able to defeat the virus if we also get it under control in Europe and around the world. If its spread goes unchecked there, sooner or later it will come back and hit us again like a boomerang. If entire countries and regions of the world fall into an economic or humanitarian abyss, we too will have a difficult road to recovery.

As an export nation, Germany in particular needs a healthy Europe and a functioning global economy. That is why it is not only an act of European solidarity, but of pure economic reason that the EU is launching the largest aid package in its history to the tune of over 500 billion euros.

Our goal is for Europe to emerge from this crisis stronger, more united and more sovereign than when the pandemic started. To achieve this, the EU budget for the next seven years must be a genuine programme for revitalising Europe. So let us rethink the budget and make large-scale investments in the future now – in research, climate protection and technological sovereignty, as well as crisis-proof health and social systems.

We must set the course for this during our EU Council Presidency. We will make this a “Corona Presidency” with a view to overcoming the coronavirus and its consequences. As soon as we are out of the woods, one of our first tasks will be to gradually and in a coordinated manner scale back restrictions on free travel and the internal market. Lessons must be learned from the crisis, for example by improving EU disaster risk reduction and the joint procurement and production of essential medical supplies. And we must correct the negative developments that this crisis has so mercilessly laid bare. I’m thinking above all of the restrictions on democracy and the rule of law made under the guise of fighting the coronavirus, which are unacceptable in Europe. Anyone who undermines the EU’s foundation of values should not expect to fully enjoy the Union’s financial advantages.

It is also becoming increasingly clear at the international level that selfishness, whether in the competition for protective masks or in the supply of medicines, is making the crisis worse for everyone. Within the framework of the G7, we have therefore agreed to cooperate more closely in the development and distribution of medical goods and to keep supply chains open.

The conditions for this are anything but easy. After all, not only in the private sphere, but also in “corona diplomacy”, keeping your distance is the order of the day! Travel and direct contact are out of the question. I hear from and see my colleagues all the more often by telephone or in video conferences – whether we’re talking about the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of German tourists or the lifting of export restrictions on vital medicines.

The UN Security Council is also meeting virtually these days as it is particularly needed right now. Wars and conflicts are the ideal breeding ground for the virus. We are working alongside UN Secretary-General Guterres to achieve a global ceasefire and have put the crisis on the Security Council’s agenda. If we do not take rapid countermeasures, the virus will undermine peace and stability around the world. We therefore want to direct the international community’s attention to where this health crisis is already threatening to exacerbate security crises. We will make this a priority of our Presidency of the Security Council in July.

One of the best investments in the fight against the pandemic is to strengthen the UN, especially the underfunded World Health Organization, for example in the development and distribution of tests and vaccines. We will discuss how to do that this week when the Alliance for Multilateralism that we have established also focuses on this issue.

The causes of the crisis must also be addressed. Recriminations do not benefit anyone, however. This is not a question of which “system” is superior, but of winning the battle against the virus together.

Democracies worldwide have taken quick and decisive action. The Bundestag put together an unprecedented aid package within the space of just one week and our welfare state and our health system are showing what they are made of. But more importantly, millions of people have demonstrated that they are prepared to do without certain freedoms for a specific period of time because the lives and health of their fellow human beings are at risk. We need this solidarity to defeat the virus – in Germany, in Europe and around the world.

When I consider the wave of helpfulness that we are witnessing in Germany and many other countries right now, the vast majority seem to have understood this. That gives us grounds for hope.


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