On 25 March 2020, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted a generally favourable position on the European Commission's proposal to amend the Council Regulation on the European Union Solidarity Fund (EUSF) in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The proposed regulation aims to provide financial assistance to Member States and countries negotiating their accession to the European Union that are seriously affected by major public health emergencies, such as the current pandemic.
The EESC's position paper, however, makes a rather mixed assessment of the Commission's proposal. On the one hand, it fully supports the proposed extension of the EUSF's scope and calls on the Council and the European Parliament to adopt the proposed regulation speedily. On the other hand, the paper clearly considers the resources allocated to the financial instrument to be insufficient and its financial provisions to be inadequate.
On the sidelines of the Enlarged Presidency meeting, the EESC president, Luca Jahier, said in this regard:
There is no other alternative but to extend the scope of the EU Solidarity Fund to include major public health emergencies and to define specific operations that are eligible for funding to tackle the pandemic crisis. The amount of resources allocated must, however, be commensurate with the scale of the emergency to be considered effective.
According to the Committee, the EUSF is a financial instrument that can provide assistance to populations affected by a health emergency such as the coronavirus to help restore normal living conditions quickly in the affected regions and to contain the spread of infectious diseases. The Fund's provisions should be modified in such a way that it can respond rapidly and the financial resources can be distributed as quickly as possible.
With regard to the eligibility criteria for funding, the EESC proposes lowering the current threshold of EUR 1.5 billion in 2011 prices or 0.3% of GNI for Member States so that they can protect their citizens from the risk of being affected.
While the Committee welcomes the increase in advance payments from the current level of 10% of the expected amount to 25% and the Commission's intention to increase the total level of appropriations for the Solidarity Fund advances in the annual budget from EUR 50 million to EUR 100 million, the rapporteur-general of the EESC contribution, Stefano Palmieri, voiced some reservations concerning these provisions.
Taking into account the scale of the emergency we face, the proposed level of advance payments will not be enough and the proposed total level of appropriations for advances seems completely inadequate, said Mr Palmieri. The Commission's proposal should be modified accordingly. The EU must be considered to be not only a community of financial and economic interests but also – and above all – a community of common destiny (1), and this principle must govern its policies, as must the principle of promoting the well-being of the European people, as set out in the Treaty on European Union (TEU Art 3.1).
In its contribution, the EESC also draws attention to the role of organised civil society in the current health emergency. In particular, associations, NGOs and social and economic partners are playing a crucial role in tackling the coronavirus outbreak. In the Committee's view, Member States should therefore maintain a permanent dialogue with these organisations and consult relevant organisations when preparing applications for the EUSF.
Read the full EESC position paper.
The EUSF was created in 2002 to support EU Member States and accession countries during major disasters caused by natural events such as floods, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires or drought. The country concerned can apply to the EUSF if the scale of the disaster event justifies intervention at EU level.
Responding appropriately at EU level to major public health emergencies such as coronavirus is currently impossible with the Fund in its current form.
The objective of the proposed Regulation is therefore to extend the scope of the EUSF to include major public health emergencies and to define specific operations that are eligible for funding.
The proposed regulation is one part of a package of contingency measures for helping Member States and their citizens tackle the coronavirus outbreak. The European Parliament will vote on the proposal during its extraordinary plenary session on 26 March 2020.
(1) ECO/319 – EESC-2012-817, adopted on 28/03/2012. Rapporteur: Joost Van Iersel.