EU avoided chaos, explored new paths in turbulent 2020

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Between the specter of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and a new leadership team facing a budget battle, the European Union looked set to remember 2020 as an “annus horribilis.”

Instead, a last-minute trade deal with the United Kingdom coupled with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the final days of the year produced a sense of success for the 27-nation bloc and brought glimmers of hope to the EU’s 450 million residents.

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After months of chaotic negotiations, the EU also will head into 2021 with both a long-term budget and a coronavirus recovery fund worth 1.83 trillion euros ($2.3 trillion) that could help the EU’s member nations bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since World War II.

“The European Union managed to do what was necessary,” Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy center, an independent think tank, said. “In the end, the European Union is resilient because it delivers benefits to its member, that the members will not want to give up.”

Ursula von der Leyen, a veteran member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, pledged to put the fight against climate change at the top of her agenda when she took over as president of the EU’s powerful executive arm on December 1, 2019. But the pandemic quickly relegated environmental concerns to the background.

EU leaders agreed this year on a more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, yet immediate public health needs and the economic fallout of the virus crisis eclipsed the ambitious Green Deal that von der Leyen envisioned to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 .

Faced with a more urgent crisis, Brussels showed adaptability.

After several member states closed their borders in response to the virus, temporarily threatening the sacrosanct principle of free movement of people and goods within Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, the EU secured the creation of priority corridors to allow cross-border movement of essential supplies. In an unprecedented move, the bloc also relaxed its stringent state aid rules so national governments could help businesses on the verge of collapse.

EU Council staff members remove the United Kingdom’s flag from the European Council building in Brussels on Brexit Day, on January 31, 2020.  (AFP)
EU Council staff members remove the United Kingdom’s flag from the European Council building in Brussels on Brexit Day, on January 31, 2020. (AFP)

The true silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly the emergence of a common approach to health, which was until this year purely of member states’ competence.

When the virus first struck Europe hard in March, a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers laid bare the weaknesses of the EU’s supply chains. Ten months and more than 350,000 virus-related deaths later, the member states’ cooperation on health-related issues has never been closer.

Under the European Commission’s helm, the 27 countries joined forces to resolve medicine and mask shortage, and to secure vaccine deals that allowed all member states to kickstart vaccination programs around the same time last week.

European countries also forged new ground in agreeing for the first time to borrow together while mutualizing part of the debt to fund the coronavirus recovery program. It was not an easy task. A majority of member states first had to overcome the resistance of a group of so-called “frugal” countries led by the Netherlands, then faced resistance from Poland and Hungary over a provision of the overall EU budget that linked payouts to respect for democratic standards.

The stalemate was broken under Germany’s time in the rotating presidency of the European Council, which defines the EU’s priorities. Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and is set to leave office next year, proved she remains as a major EU power broker while in the twilight of her political career.

“Her role has been crucial when it comes to the (budget), to the recovery package,” Zuleeg told The Associated Press. “It was crucial that Germany took the lead together with France and push it over the line.”

Of course, Merkel could not fix all the EU’s problems is the space of six months: the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is at a nadir, and the EU has yet to tackle illegal immigration and asylum, Europe’ most pressing and politically divisive issue before the pandemic.

But while sealing the UK trade deal made for a frantic December, the EU found more ways to usher in 2021 with a blush of health on its cheeks. It launched an ambitious reform of its rules for internet businesses, a move that will expose big tech companies to hefty fines for violations, and signed a major investment deal with China this week.

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