Editor’s note: Atlanta’s European consulates and chambers have joined together to host a “Europe Day” webinar featuring local diplomats and business leaders as well as the head of the trade delegation at the EU delegation to the U.S. The free event starts at 10 on Thursday
The COVID-19 pandemic, which slammed the European Union before turning its gaze on the U.S., has presented an urgent test of both sides’ commitment to global collaboration and solidarity, the bloc’s ambassador to Washington told a virtual audience of mostly Atlantans Wednesday.
Even as they shepherd their people through unprecedented health and economic crises, the transatlantic trading partners that comprise nearly half of the world’s economy should resist the urge to turn inward, Stravros Lambrinidis said during a call with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
“This isn’t just about this crisis. This is about the world that develops after it, and we should have a collective say. We should identify things to work together on and move to it,” he said during a call with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, adding: “Enough talking, as it were.”
“This isn’t just about this crisis. This is about the world that develops after it.”
The globalized world was growing more fragmented even before the crisis, with populism on the march, multilateral institutions reeling, the EU losing one of its main powers during Brexit and the U.S. abdicating its traditional leadership role in favor of an “America First” posture.
Even the EU, where 27 member nations have long pooled sovereignty to gain greater influence as a bloc, was slammed by critics for a disjointed early response.
Italy, where hospitals were overrun by the most forceful wave of cases after China, turned around and loudly praised that country for airlifting in personal protective equipment it supposedly couldn’t procure from places like Germany and France.
Mr. Lambridinis admitted that reports of hoarding exposed the problems with leaving health up to member states even as the EU coordinates other issues like trade and fiscal policy.
“Over the years we have given much more to Brussels to make collective decisions, but health has not been one of those things. When the crisis hit, everyone dealt with it individually. It became very clear to everyone very quickly that that was not working.”
He argued that the EU course-corrected as quickly as possible and began sourcing medical supplies as a bloc, with enhanced buying power and speed.
This instance was emblematic of the need to deepen collaboration more broadly, especially as the bloc faces a projected economic contraction of more than 7 percent by year’s end, he said.
“We used instruments that we had and instruments we created” to fight the disease and the ensuing economic fallout from lockdown measures. The goal? Preserving both “lives and livelihoods,” Mr. Lambridinis said.
Extraordinary measures have involved returning some sovereignty to the member states temporarily. Along with deploying a more than half-trillion-euro relief package, which includes €100 billion for targeted wage subsidies to preserve jobs and hasten the recovery, the EU empowered members to deploy “massive amounts” of state aid to their own small and medium-sized businesses and allowed countries to spend beyond the normal EU debt and deficit limitations. The bloc even reimposed national borders in a bid to halt transmission. A rebuilding package that could run into the trillions of dollars and directed toward the hardest-hit nations in the bloc is being negotiated now.
Despite the challenges in implementation, these achievements evidence Europe’s hard-won solidarity — a message Mr. Lambridinis said will resonate this week as the bloc marks its 70th anniversary.
“This is in our blood. We didn’t just happen. We came out of a second World War in which we were killing each other. The biggest crime against humanity, the Holocaust, occurred in our hands. We decided this would not happen again, not on our watch. This kind of partnership and cooperation is what I talk to our American interlocutors in Washington daily about.”
And he said the EU has done all this while continuing to look outward.
“We have not forgotten the rest of the world in the same we way we did not forget supporting each other in this, and that is not a small thing,” he said, urging the U.S. to follow suit.
Along with supporting the World Health Organization’s work globally, the EU just helped raise $8 billion to fund the global effort toward a vaccine and also set up a $20 billion fund to support fragile, COVID-wracked economies around the world.
“They don’t just need masks. They need social stability. They need a sense of economic continuity even as they are being hit very hard,” Mr. Lambridinis said, urging the U.S. and Europe to show that they are the most active and generous global powers.
All this becomes increasingly vital from as various countries weaponize their pandemic response in the battle for ideological high ground.
The U.S. has halted WHO funding over its alleged deference to China, which the U.S. sees as having covered up the early days of the virus, hampering the global response.
Mr. Lambridinis said countries like Russia and China are seeing in the bungled responses and infighting an opportunity to discredit democracy.
“Fundamentally they are trying to say that the West is selfish, divided, ineffective in dealing with a crisis like this,” he said, adding that the U.S. and Europe should avoid “falling into the trap” of confirming that.
While he didn’t clarify a focus on China, he referenced some “countries right now acting like Mother Teresa” in sending supplies around the world to score political points.
What has been reported with less clarity are stories of EU interconnectivity — doctors from Romania flying into Italy to treat patients, or German hospitals close to the border welcoming French patients, or other nations welcoming Italians.
A former Greek foreign minister during that country’s financial crisis in 2011, Mr. Lambridinis said the EU won’t hesitate to launch actions against member states that use the crisis for power grabs. It will also be game for investigating the origins of the virus and how certain countries may have impeded the fight against it. But for now, health supersedes geopolitics.
“In our view the time now is to join hands not to point fingers,” he said.
On the economic front, he offered dire predictions that even at the end of 2021 the EU economy will still be 2 percent smaller than it was in 2019. Transatlantic travel restrictions will be slow to be lifted, as they will depend on individual U.S. states’ lockdown measures. EU nations will coordinate an opening together, Mr. Lambrinidis said.
Either way, the more the U.S. and the EU can work — and trade — together, the easier the recovery will be for both. With air travel hit hard, it’s even more urgent to resolve the long-standing dispute between Airbus and Boeing and to ensure a resilient (and perhaps reformed) World Trade Organization to serve as a post-crisis “referee” as countries are tempted to prop up battered industries post-crisis with market-distorting measures.