Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak
“Check against delivery”
I would firstly like to thank all those of you who have made this extraordinary session possible under such exceptional circumstances. It is hard to believe quite how much the world has changed since we last met. In the blink of an eye, a virus which emerged on the other side of the world has become a deadly pandemic with tragic consequences for us here in Europe too.
Overnight, our way of life has changed. Our streets have emptied. Our doors have shut. And our daily lives have become a struggle for survival. During this time, it has been made clear to us how fragile our lives are. We have seen tragedy at the heart of Europe on a scale we could never have imagined just a few weeks ago. My heart is with all the victims and their loved ones. And my thoughts and best wishes go to all those currently fighting for their lives or unwell at home. We are with you.
But however tough the virus is, the people of Europe are just as tough. I wish to pay tribute to the men and women who are leading this fight. By this I mean the doctors, nurses and carers in Italy and across Europe who have put themselves in danger without the slightest hesitation. Heroes risking everything, day after day, to save our parents and grandparents, friends and colleagues, neighbours and strangers. Europe owes you all a debt of gratitude. To those replenishing shelves or collecting bins. To the teachers and undertakers, lorry drivers and cleaners, factory workers and bakers. To all those helping to keep things moving. Europe owes you all a debt of gratitude.
But what is unique about this fight, is that every single one of us has a role to play. Every single one of us can help repay that debt. By keeping our distance we can slow down the spread of the virus. The numbers in the last few days have shown that we can bend the trend – but only if we all do our share. Yes, it is painful to stay away from our family – especially when we are worried about their physical and mental health. It is painful for those for whom home is not a happy or a safe place to be. It is painful for those who have plans put on hold or things they worked so hard for cast into doubt. This is why I am convinced that while we may be sitting further apart than usual, we must work closer together than ever before.
We must look out for each other, pull each other through this. Because if there is one thing that is more contagious than this virus, it is love and compassion. And in the face of adversity, the people of Europe are showing how strong that can be. Small acts of kindness, compassion and solidarity are helping to spread hope all over Europe. From volunteering to balcony singing. From sending postcards to the lonely, to shopping for the elderly. From hotels offering their beds, to restaurants donating their food. From luxury perfumers and vodka producers making sanitising gel, to car makers and fashion houses producing masks. This is the example that the European Union must follow. By each doing our little bit, we can truly help each other a lot.
And our role as Europe’s institutions, policy makers and leaders is to show that same trust, that same unity and that same leadership. We all share this responsibility. None of us can do it alone and certainly no Member State can handle this crisis on their own. Because in this crisis, and in our Union more generally, it is only by helping each other that we can help ourselves.
But the story from the last few weeks is partly a painful one to tell. When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit, too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not a ‘fair weather Union’, too many initially refused to share their umbrella. But it was not long before some felt the consequences of their own uncoordinated actions. This is why over the last few weeks we took exceptional and extraordinary measures to coordinate and enable the action that was needed.
Since then, things are improving and Member States are starting to help each other – to help themselves. Europe is now really stepping up. But the people of Europe are watching what happens next. And we all know what is at stake. What we do now matters – for today as well as for the future.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus is first and foremost a public health emergency. And we will stop at nothing to save lives. To do that, we are lucky to be able to rely on the best health care professionals in the world. From Milan to Madrid and beyond, they are producing miracles every day. But as we have seen – both there and elsewhere – the scale of the outbreak is stretching them to breaking point. They urgently need the right equipment, they need the right amount of it, and they need it right now. But instead of that, what we saw was crucial equipment stuck in bottlenecks or at borders for days.
This is why we had to take matters into our own hands as far as we could to release these blockades. It is why we are creating the first ever European stockpile of medical equipment, such as ventilators, masks and lab supplies. The Commission will finance 90% of this stockpile through RescEU. It is why we took big steps to protect the availability of key supplies of equipment such as masks and protective clothing, by making them subject to an export authorisation. It is why we launched several joint procurements with Member States for testing kits, ventilators and protective equipment. 25 Member States joined.
Since Tuesday, we know that their demands for masks, gloves, goggles, face-shields can be matched by the producers. The first deliveries should start in the coming weeks. And because knowledge saves lives in a pandemic, we set up a European team of scientific experts to help come up with coordinated measures that we can all follow. I personally chair these discussions twice a week. Doing so has only deepened my conviction that we will need to draw on all that makes us strong to get through this together and then to get back on our feet again.
And we have no stronger asset for this than our unique Single Market. A successful European response can only be coordinated if our Internal Market and our borders work the way they should. A crisis without borders cannot be solved by putting barriers between us. And yet, this is exactly the first reflex that many European countries had. This simply makes no sense. And it also fundamentally contradicts our European spirit. Because there is not one single Member State that can meet its own needs when it comes to vital medical supplies and equipment. Not one.
The free movement of goods and services is therefore our strongest, and frankly, our only asset to ensure supplies can go to where they are needed most. It makes no sense that some countries unilaterally decided to stop exports to others in the Internal Market. This is why the Commission intervened when a number of countries blocked exports of protective equipment to Italy. It is why we issued guidelines for border measures to protect health and keep goods and essential services available. It is why we are calling for priority ‘green lanes’ for essential freight transport.
These will ensure that crossing the border takes no more than 15 minutes. And they will help ensure that goods and supplies can go where they are needed and we can all avoid shortages. It pains me that we had to do this, but our coordinated approach is now bearing fruit. The Internal Market is already functioning better. And we all welcome the news that hospitals in Saxony took patients from Lombardy, while others from the ‘Grand Est’ in France are now being treated in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. This only goes to prove that it is only by helping each other that we can really help ourselves.
The whole set of measures we have taken reflects the unprecedented situation we are in. But as I said earlier, the people of Europe are watching what happens next. They of course want us to do everything we can to save as many lives as we can. But they are also thinking about the day after. They are thinking about what job they will have to go back to, what will happen to their business or their employer, to their savings or their mortgage. They will worry about their parents, their neighbour, and their local community. They will know that their governments had to make difficult decisions to save lives.
But they will also remember who was there for them – and who was not. They will remember those that acted – and those who did not. And they will remember the decisions that we take today – and those we will not. The point is that sometime soon there will be a day after. And our job is to make sure that on that day – and on all that follow it – the EU is there for those that need it. What we do now really matters.
This is why we launched the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative to help direct EUR 37 billion to mitigate the impact of the crisis, to save lives, jobs and companies. This is why we adopted the most flexible temporary rules on state aid ever, to enable Member States to give a lifeline to businesses. The first cases were approved in record time, within a matter of hours.
It is why, for the first time in our history, we have activated the general escape clause in the Stability and Growth Pact. That means that Member States can use all the firepower they have to support those in work or out of work, to support businesses big and small, and to support people through tough times, whoever they are, wherever they are from.
That is the Europe that people must remember on the day after. A Europe that works at top speed when it feels as though the whole world has pressed ‘Pause’. A Europe that is there for its people and Member States when they need it most. A Europe that puts empathy and compassion above all else.
A Europe that in times of need is both resilient and selfless. That is the Europe I want. It is precisely that Europe that our founding fathers and mothers dreamt of amid the ashes of the Second World War. When they created this Union of people and nations, they were painfully aware of the consequences of egotism and overblown nationalism. Their goal was to forge an alliance of common strength based on mutual trust. And it was from their great idea that within decades a unique community of freedom and peace – our European Union – arose.
Today, in the face of our invisible foe, these fundamental values of our Union are being put to the test. Once again, we must all rely on one another. Once again, we must all help one another through this tough time. Right now it is our utmost duty and priority to save the lives and livelihoods of European men and women. But the day will come – I hope in the not-too-distant future – when we must look ahead and, together, shape the recovery.
Then we will learn lessons and have to decide what type of European Union we want for the future. And when we do, we must not get drawn into the empty and futile debate of whether we need more or less Europe. We should instead concentrate on how we can use this storm to make sure that we weather the next one better.
After all, the desire for a resilient European home which is worth living in is something that unites us all: north and south, east and west. Let us be mindful of that! The decisions we take today will live long in the memory. And they will shape the foundations of our European Union of tomorrow.
We are standing at a fork in the road: will this virus permanently divide us into rich and poor? Into the haves and the have-nots? Or will we become a strong continent, a player to be reckoned with on the world stage? Could we perhaps even emerge stronger and better from this predicament? Could our communities be brought closer together in the face of crisis and our democracies enhance their reputation?
Looking at the many acts of kindness, goodwill and human decency throughout Europe, we have every reason to be optimistic about the future. Europe has everything it needs, and we are ready to do whatever it takes to overcome this crisis. Honourable Members, in recent days many of you have quoted Jean Monnet on Europe being forged in crises. It is no less true today.
But there is a quote from another founding father which I believe also encapsulates where we stand at present. Konrad Adenauer once said that ‘history is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.’ My friends, history is now looking at us. Let us do the right thing together – with one big heart, rather than 27 small ones.
Lang lebe Europa! Long live Europe! Vive l’Europe!