Almost two months after the beginning of the coronavirus emergency, measures to ease lockdowns and lay the foundations for restarting social and economic normality within their borders have begun to be envisaged and implemented in several Member States. However, coordination at a European level at this stage is essential to ensure that the reopening can proceed safely without risks that could prove to be counterproductive.
Consequently, on April 15, the European Commission and the Council presented a roadmap outlining a set of criteria, principles and recommendations to guide Member States in returning to normality and ending the lockdown, with the aim of preserving public health by gradually lifting the containment measures.
The gradual reduction of measures will be based on three key criteria, providing a framework to ensure homogeneous and widespread coordination at a EU level.
The first is the epidemiological criterion – before taking measures to end the lockdown it will be necessary to assess whether the spread of the disease has actually been reduced and stabilised. The assessment should be based on objective data, such as the reduction in the number of cases as well as that of patients in hospital or intensive care.
The second key point to take into account is the effective capacity of health systems. In recent weeks, overloading of hospitals and extreme situations that have put structures throughout Europe under strain have been commonplace. Healthcare systems will have to demonstrate that they are strong enough to be able to return to managing the normal inflow of patients and, at the same time, to intervene again with emergency measures should there be a further increase in the number of cases associated with the epidemic.
The last criterion identified is the ability to ensure appropriate monitoring of the evolution of the epidemic at local levels, through the possibility of carrying out large-scale tests and tracking behaviour, in order to predict and contain the possible reappearance and spread of the disease.
These criteria, and the actions accompanying them, should be based on three principles, which could be summed up in terms of scientific ratio, coordination and solidarity aspects. In particular, Member States are required to adopt measures combining the benefits for public health with other social and economic factors, being constantly aware that such approaches may be reviewed as new scientific evidence becomes available. In addition, coordination is essential, to the extent that the Member States will have to communicate at a EU level, and in advance, all the initiatives they wish to implement in the return to normality.
These principles and criteria are complemented by a series of more concrete measures addressed to all Member States. These range from the optimisation, management and sharing of the data collected, including through the creation of new monitoring tools, to strengthening the capacity of health systems, through the procurement of medical and personal protective equipment and the development of safe and effective treatments and medicines.
Finally, the Commission, on the basis of scientific advice from the European Centre for Disease Control and the Advisory Group on Covid-19, has presented a set of recommendations for Member States to guide the various exit strategies in the most coordinated way possible.
Each action should be gradual, so that evaluations and adjustments can be made if necessary. The lockdown exit, therefore, will be gradual. Measures of a more general scope will be progressively accompanied by more specific measures, such as the extension of social isolation for the most vulnerable groups, the replacement of national emergency measures with more specific ones linked to the needs of local realities, the introduction of alternatives to allow economic activities to resume as safely as possible for public health.
A key point involves the management of the internal and external borders of the Union and, above all, the resumption of the normal functioning of the Schengen area. The aim is to continue to minimise the impact of the crisis on the internal market by gradually reducing border controls, not only for the free movement of goods, but also for people, giving priority to cross-border and seasonal workers. As regards external borders, the Communication reserves this option for a later stage, also in view of the global evolution of the pandemic.
Finally, for the recovery of economic activity, social distancing measures will still be essential, but allowing for a gradual return to normal productivity in all Member States. Wherever possible, the institutions will continue to encourage teleworking, but with reference to a gradual return to normality through the reopening of commercial activities such as bars and restaurants, again through social distancing measures, reduced hours, and identification of a maximum number of people as regards access to services.
All this will have to be done in close cooperation and coordination with the institutions to ensure that the exit can take place safely. The Commission will continue to play a crucial coordination role in this respect, not only internally but also internationally through close cooperation with the other G20 leaders.
In the press conference presenting the roadmap, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also identified 4 key areas to be taken into account in the medium to long term. These involve the strengthening of the Internal Market, through a solid industrial strategy based on green transition and the digital revolution; a solid multiannual financial framework taking into account post-emergency needs; the EU’s international responsibility; and the Union’s ability to draw the necessary lessons from this time of crisis, in order to create an even more united and resilient Europe.
The next test will be the European Council next week, which will return to negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework, also on the basis of the changes introduced by the Commission compared to the original agenda proposed earlier this year.