The EU’s response to COVID-19: adapting the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI)

On Friday 17th April 2020, little more than one month after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the European Parliament approved the freeing up of €3.08 billion to support member states’ healthcare systems during this time of crisis. The financing of this action is to come entirely from EU budget.

The EP and the Council together proposed a decision on the mobilization of the Contingency Margin in 2020 to “provide emergency assistance” (COM(2020) 172 final) and adjustments to the amounts mobilized from the Flexibility Instrument for 2020, in particular, increasing the funds for heading 3 Security and Citizenship (2020/2053(BUD)). These proposals were widely favoured when it came to voting, together with amendments to the current multiannual financial framework 2014-2020 and drafts to modify the General Budget 2020 to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The ESI – what, when and how? 

The main channel through which EU budget will be mobilized is the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI). As much as €2.7 billion will be devoted to this instrument. But what can it hope to achieve, and what has been used for until now?

The ESI was created in 2016 as a consequence of the refugee crisis in Greece. According to the European Commission website press corner on EU Solidarity for Health Initiative, this instrument allows the EU to “directly respond to crisis situations” and such response to be coordinated at the EU level. Practically, examples of action which can be completed through this instrument are: the acquisition and distribution of protection kits, the transportation of patients from one country to another country that has availability, and support to testing and cure development.

The ESI is an instrument considered when other means are insufficient, particularly in the case of disasters causing severe harm to one or more EU member states. In Council Regulation (EU) 2016/369, the ESI’s establishment is justified in the preamble as “there is currently no appropriate instrument available at Union level to address on a sufficiently predictable and independent basis the humanitarian needs of disaster-stricken people within the Union”. Also, the contribution to a reduction of the economic impact of such disasters is mentioned.

The Commission is the one that can initiate the ‘activation’ of the instrument (Article 2) and its proposal to use it for the COVID-19 emergency was published on 2nd April 2020. In fact, the Commission proposed an extension of the scope of the “eligible actions and eligible implementing partners in view of the large scope of the measures required to address the COVID–19 crisis”, applying this Regulation retroactively from 1st February 2020.

The EU’s response to crisis: mirroring the weaknesses of European integration

The Union has instruments to support member states under serious threat, as accorded by articles 122, 222 and 168 TFEU – the latter being explicitly related to the health matters. However, the timing of European responses to large-scale contemporary crises appear always to be delayed. You only have to look at recent political and societal tensions to see how they have texted the European integration project: a coordinated response to large migration flows, uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations, the rise of nationalist parties, and most importantly at this moment, the persistent question of the possibility of a fiscal union.

This crisis appears once again to be a testing table for the EU, accentuating political struggles as in the positioning of Italy and the Netherlands. Many commentators ask whether this will lead to an additional pooling of resources and further cooperation or of a fracture to the EU’s institutional and policy architecture. However, the funds devoted to ESI and rescEU show that the EU is clearly drawing on and adapting pre-existing instruments and bodies, also taking into account the extra €3.6 million of resources provided to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

At this point, the question remains how such funds will be accounted for. This is especially interesting the case of the ECDPC agency, whose systematic information gathering could provide a standardized (much needed) interpretation of data about COVID-19 and whose activities and expenditure should arguably be controlled by the EP itself (Budgetary Control Committee) and the European Court of Auditors.

The Parliament’s vote can be seen as a strong endorsement of European solidarity and an example of a European solution linked to the EU budget. On 23rd April 2020, the Council will give their follow-up to what the EP has supported after a series of rather tense debates.

by Chiara Russo

Chiara Russo is currently a Research Master student in European Studies at Maastricht University. She holds a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from LUISS University in Rome. Her research interests involve EU agencies, accountability mechanisms and the European regulatory state. She can be contacted at chiara.russo@student.maastrichtuniversity.nl

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