Sassoli: COVID-19: No return to pre-pandemic status quo. More democracy, more solidarity, more Europe. Health policy should be an EU competence. 

 

Speech by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, at the extraordinary European Council meeting on 25 and 26 February 2021

Ladies and gentlemen,

Over the past year, our lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has brought chaos to our economies, our schools, our workplaces, sparing no area of our lives.  We have had to come up with ingenious solutions to keep democracy going. Tackling this crisis has not been easy for anyone, but I’m pleased that we have remained united in our commitment to transparency and democracy; it is this solidarity that is making Europe more effective in the fight against the pandemic and the crisis.

I firmly believe that we are on the path that will lead us out of this tragic crisis together. But I also believe that our COVID-19 strategy now calls for action. The pandemic has given us new responsibilities and duties: the responsibility to make choices, and the duty to do so in the general interest – not the interest of the few. The vaccines will prove central to our long-term recovery with no one left forgotten. We need to develop a pan-European response that brings tangible benefits to citizens in all Member States.

Today, for the first time since our last meeting in December, we can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Three vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, with more on the way. Vaccination roll-out is gathering pace: 9 million have had the requisite two doses, while more than 18 million have received their first jab. The EU continues to expand its vaccine portfolio: it has secured 600 million additional doses, bringing the total to 2.6 billion – more than enough to vaccinate the entire EU population.

It was forward-looking of our governments to give the Commission the mandate to procure vaccines to distribute among all 27 Member States.

It is thanks to our collective approach that European countries have not been pitted against each other and the rich countries have not bought up most of the vaccines. I am strongly opposed to bilateral agreements. I urge you to stand firm; do not succumb to the temptation of vaccine nationalism.  A common approach also allows us to monitor, investigate and come down hard on any scams targeting Member States. Only a common policy can make it possible to regulate mobility as well. A vaccination certificate can be the right tool to allow everyone, in an equal and non-discriminatory way, to return to normality. We cannot wait and this is the right time to decide.

Time is not on our side. In view of the worrying SARS-CoV-2 variants that have emerged recently, I welcome the HERA incubator initiative. We must focus our efforts on detecting and combating new variants through specialised PCR tests, on stepping up genome sequencing, and on making sure vaccines are effective against new strains.

Vaccination campaigns can only succeed if there is public trust. We should also be prepared to enter into more advance purchase agreements if vaccines need to be modified to beat new variants. Trust is rooted in information and transparency.

Our response to the crisis must involve more democracy. This is another reason why the contact group we have set up with the Commission is so important. Our joint efforts will improve the transparency and oversight of the vaccine strategy and its use of EU funds. All our energies must now go into ramping up the EU-based production of existing and future vaccines. There is no alternative – this is the only way to achieve our objective of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by the end of the summer. Of course, pharmaceutical companies must honour their contractual obligations, but we should also go on clearing the way for all practical licensing arrangements that will enable us to expedite the large-scale public vaccination campaign. We need to address shortages and supply bottlenecks quickly in order to increase production. Our economic recovery will be more robust the more widely vaccines are rolled out.

Looking further ahead, the pandemic should prompt us to consider the relationship between the protection of intellectual property and the huge volumes of public money spent on research at EU level.

What is more, in the course of the ongoing crisis the European Union has come to exercise de facto powers in the area of public health, which should perhaps be codified in due course. Indeed, the pandemic has shown us that important decisions concerning security, health, supplies of medical equipment and vaccines, research and manufacturing, arrangements regulating the movement of people and the opening and closing of our borders can only properly be taken at European level.

The Commission showed courage and resourcefulness in its response. The European Union has taken on – without any prior modification of the Treaties – complex tasks and responsibilities with major implications for the future. It had no choice but to act, despite having no real remit on health.

The lesson the pandemic has taught us is that there can be no return to how things were before. It would be a mistake, a waste of energy, and it would leave us ill-equipped to address future challenges. Our task now is to develop a European health policy, by allocating clearly defined competences to the EU institutions.

Inconsistencies and shortcomings have marred our responses to the health crisis. Some of them are due in large part to the fact that, day after day, we are creating these competences by means of practical action, evidence of a very real sense of political and moral responsibility which makes up for the lack of real powers.

I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that modifying the Treaties to incorporate the provisions we need and guaranteeing the effectiveness of the European response can no longer be a taboo.

This month, the COVAX facility will start delivering vaccines. I know that all the Member States are in a position to donate their vaccine surplus to countries that need it. I would encourage a unified approach with Member States pledging their doses through COVAX, in order to ensure fair and equitable redistribution. I strongly believe that multilateralism and coordinated efforts are the tools we need to take us out of this crisis, increase the resilience of our health systems and boost our capacity for pandemic preparedness and response.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call alerting us to the need for a stronger, more united and more assertive foreign and security policy. It has highlighted the need to strengthen Union leadership on the international stage and to deepen our partnerships with countries that share our way of thinking and commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

After what have already been protracted discussions, we now need to switch from talk to action and exploit to the full all the hard and soft power options in the EU’s external policy arsenal. In this regard, I should also like to stress the value of the parliamentary dimension; Parliament is also part of ‘Team Europe’.

Parliament welcomes the shift from a common defence policy to a fully fledged defence system. In that connection, we welcome the move to introduce the strategic compass in 2022. But the time has finally come to stop paying lip service to these ideas and take action. This means implementing existing decisions to provide defence capabilities and staff for missions, and making full use of the EU’s latest defence initiatives to bolster Europe’s defence industrial base by setting up a European defence fund, and to ensure the swifter and more coherent implementation of PESCO, the permanent structured cooperation framework.

Parliament believes that we should improve our understanding of the new threats and build up our common resilience, in order to become strategically autonomous.

As part of its neighbourhood policy, the European Union also needs to take on an active role in the Mediterranean Dialogue. This is why we welcome the new agenda for the Mediterranean, which sends a key message on the importance that the EU attaches to its southern neighbours.

Parliament has the resources and experience to help and stands ready to play its part. Rest assured that throughout our presidency of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union for the Mediterranean, Parliament will work hard to champion the role of interparliamentary dialogue in tackling the region’s biggest challenges. Fighting climate change in the region through sustainable development and addressing widening socioeconomic disparities will be at the heart of our presidency.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Heads of State and Government,

Combating the pandemic, fleshing out our response to the economic crisis and developing a common foreign policy are all of a piece with our ambition to define more clearly what the Europe of the 21st century stands for.  Let us be clear: we have no choice but to keep forging ahead.

I wish you a productive meeting.