by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen
I want to start by thanking all of those who have made this extraordinary session possible in what are truly extraordinary circumstances.
It is hard to believe how much and how dramatically the world has changed since we last met.
In the blink of an eye, a virus that started on the other side of the world has become a deadly pandemic with tragic consequences also here in Europe.
In a heartbeat, our lifestyles changed. Our streets emptied. Our doors closed. And we went from business as usual to the fight of our lives.
In that time, we have seen the fragility of life laid bare in front of our eyes. And we have seen tragedy on a scale unimaginable even just a few short weeks ago in the heart of Europe.
My heart goes out to all of the victims and their loved ones. And all of our thoughts and best wishes are with those currently fighting for their lives or sick at home.
But while the virus has hit us hard, the people of Europe have hit back just as hard.
I want to pay tribute to the women and men leading that fight. I think of the nurses, doctors and care workers in Italy, Spain and across Europe who ran towards the fire without any second thought. The heroes who are putting everything on the line, every hour of the day, to save our parents, to save our grandparents, friends and colleagues, neighbours and strangers.
Europe owes you all a debt of gratitude.
To the shelf-stackers and the bin collectors. The undertakers and the teachers. The truck drivers and the cleaners. The factory workersand the bread makers. To all those who are helping to keep our world 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 their mental health. And yes, 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, we must 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, solidarity are helping to spread hope through all Europe: from volunteering to balcony singing. From sending postcards to the lonely, to shopping for the elderly. From hotels offering their beds for free, 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 only 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 action. This is why over the last few weeks we took exceptional and extraordinary measures to coordinate and enable the action that is 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 have and 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 single day. But as we have seen – both there and elsewhere – the scale of the outbreak is stretching them to the breaking point.
They urgently need the equipment, 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.
And this is why we had to take matters into our own hands as far as we could to release these blockades.
This 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.
This is why we launched several joint procurements with Member States for testing kits, ventilators and protective equipment. 25 Member States joined the latter. And there is good news: 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 scientists, experts to help us come up with coordinated measures that we all can 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 Schengen area work the way it should.
A crisis without borders cannot be resolved by putting barriers between us. And yet, this is exactly the first reflex that many European countries had. This simply makes no sense. 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 where they are needed most. It makes no sense that some countries unilaterally decided to stop exports to others in the Internal Market.
And 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 transport of goods. 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 all can 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 help ourselves.
The whole set of measures that we have taken reflects the unprecedented situation we are all in. But as I said earlier, the people of Europe are watching what happens next. And 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 and to their employers. What will happen to their savings and their mortgage? They will worry about their parents, their neighbour, their local community. They will know that their governments had to make difficult decisions to save lives – yes.
But they will also remember who was there for them – and who was not. And they will remember those that acted – and those who did not. And they will remember the decisions that we take today – or 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 European Union is there for those that need it. What we do now really matters.
And this is why we launched the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative to help direct EUR 37 billion mitigate the impact of the crisis, to save lives, jobs and businesses.
This is why we adopted the most flexible ever temporary rules on state aid to enable Member States to give a lifeline to their businesses. The first cases were approved in record time, within a matter of hours.
And this 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 those out of work, to support businesses small and big, and to support people through these tough times.
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 has empathy and puts 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 this 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 what egotism and overblown nationalism could lead to. Their goal was to forge an alliance in which mutual trust grows into common strength. 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 enemy, these fundamental values of our Union are being put to the test. We must all be able to rely on one another. And we must all pull each other through these tough times.
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 – and I hope in the not-too-distant future – when we must look ahead and, together, shape the recovery. We will have to learn lessons and have to decide what type of European Union we want for the future.
And when we do, we must not get sucked into the false debate of more or less Europe. We should focus on how we can use this storm to make sure we can withstand the next.
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’s be mindful that the decisions we take today will be remembered. 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 in this world? Can we even emerge stronger and better from this? Can our communities be closer in the face of adversity? Can our democracies be greater?
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.
In recent days many of you have quoted Jean Monnet on Europe being forged in crises. This still stands true today.
But there is a quote from another founding father which I think also sums up where we are. Konrad Adenauer once said that ‘History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.’
Dear friends, history is watching us. Let us do the right thing together – with one big heart, not 27 small ones.
Lang lebe Europa! Vive l’Europe! Long live Europe!
Ursula Von der Leyen
President of the European Commission
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