Talk Recap: COVID 19 & EU with Dr. Ece Özlem Atikcan

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

By Olga Efraimidou, Warwick European Society President

The year 2020 was already supposed to be a remarkable one for the EU with UK’s withdrawal from the organisation, the introduction of the European Green Deal, and the persisting illiberal behaviors of Poland and Hungary. However, COVID-19 came to be the capper in this already politically unstable setting. Although it is questionable whether the pandemic was a ‘black swan’ or a ‘grey rhino’, meaning respectively an unpredictable event or a foreseeable yet neglected threat, we can say with certainty that the EU has failed to respond in due time. Warwick European Society had the honor to host Dr. Özlem Atikcan, an Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, for an insightful talk around the COVID-19 crisis and EU’s response to it.

EU’s unharmonized policies around health coupled with the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention ECDC’s purely consultive function have resulted in Member States being principally in charge on this sector. In the early stages of COVID-19 in January, the health security committee of the European Commission had a meeting concerning about travelling to China and imposed some border measures. Nevertheless, the lack of compliance mechanisms led once again to a lot of unilateral action. The ECDC advised governments to strengthen the capacities of their hospitals and intensive care units, but as Dr. Atikcan asserted the threat was largely underestimated. Brexit has certainly acted as a great distraction to these initial stages of COVID-19 and measures that could have been potentially taken, were forgotten.

Who would have imagined that only two months later would WHO declare the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic and identify Europe as its epicenter. From early on, Italy ran out of PPE, its hospitals were overwhelmed, and it desperately called for EU’s help without any effect. The European Commission rushed an emergency legislation to build a central stockpile through the RescEU scheme, where Member States were responsible for procuring the supplies and the Commission would later cover their costs.

After a brief breakdown of the financial package offered by the EU to tackle the pandemic, under the name Next Generation EU, Dr. Atikcan brilliantly constructed the link between this crisis and the existence of illiberal democracies in the EU. Democratic concerns have been of major significance to the EU with the protagonists being Poland and Hungary.

Event banner. Created by the Presiana Dimitrova.

The lack of checks and balances, an independent jury, freedom of media and corruption constitute evidence for these states’ recalcitrant behaviors and have led the EU to trigger Article 7 against them in 2017-2018. In an attempt to make things right, the EU has introduced the rule of law conditionality under which Member States that disrespect the rule of law would risk losing access to EU funds. Poland and Hungary’s response has not been ideal, as they have both refused to approve the EU budget which included the COVID recovery package. A couple of weeks after our talk, EU eventually reached a budget deal with both countries marking a “triumph over egoism”.

Whether this showcased the beginning of an end concerning EU solidarity remains another question.

The ambiguity in the assessment of breaches of EU’s core values and the double standards in their application are both extremely concerning and definitive events of EU’s future. They have been a major obstacle to EU’s response to the pandemic, even though the EU had failed from the beginning to identify the grey rhino in front of it. What do you think? Has the COVID-19 crisis brought the EU closer together or has it broken it apart?

By Olga Efraimidou, Third Year Law Student & Warwick European Society President.

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