“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Mark Twain
After the rushed decisions taken in early March by many EU member states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, it is now time to define the post-pandemic Europe and prepare for the economic recovery.
In the past weeks, the EU governments, institutions and stakeholders have started developing their exit plans and strategic actions to put the economy back on track. They have expressed commitment to ensure a sustainable, green and digitally driven future.
However, before one start drafting policy papers, implementing new regulations and legislation, we should acknowledge the ways citizens were able to adapt to the reality of the pandemic and societal lockdowns. The behaviours of many ordinary citizens should serve as a model for the governments in designing future European economy and society. Politicians should reject the pandemic protectionism, like restricting exports on medical supplies. They need to look beyond fears and ideas of self-sufficiency and think of a solution that will make us stronger to fight another crisis – together.
We also need to avoid the old habit of preparing for a new crisis that we think will look precisely like the one we just had. Many countries across the EU must reconsider their policies and improve their economic management if they want to withstand the next emergency.
The uncoordinated and desperate actions during the Covid-19 crisis revealed that, despite the warnings, no government was able to get ahead of the spread of the virus. But it also pointed to another important thing: many citizens took their life in their own hands and quickly reacted as the situation developed. They adjusted and showed a great deal of creativity and dynamism in finding solutions to problems.
Across the continent, many people manifested unprecedented solidarity and strength. From healthcare workers in Italy to truck drivers from Eastern Europe, and supermarket workers in Spain, many people continued to serve their fellow citizens despite the risk of getting infected by the virus.
Additionally, many local initiatives emerged. The community response was strong and widespread. Spaniards offered to do grocery shopping for their elderly neighbours, and they did it en masse. Dressmakers working in German theatres supplied protective facemasks that were lacking in many hospitals across the continent.
Many in Brussels donated money via the crowdfunding platforms to support local hospitals, which allowed them to order respirators and other medical equipment. Some of the closed Polish restaurants prepared meals and distributed them to healthcare workers, while Belgian hotels and private landlords offered accommodation to nurses and doctors who decided to stay away from their families to protect them.
Furthermore, other businesses considered as non-essential found ways to help to fight the outbreak. Swedish garments company changed production to protective clothes and masks, while Polish sporting goods firm supplied hospitals with ski goggles to make up for temporary shortages. In the United Kingdom, producers of spirits and beer used their alcohol supply to manufacture hand sanitizers.
Over time, more and more companies, including British car manufactures, and Italian start-ups have contributed by designing ad-hoc ventilators, face shields or adapting their production line to supply missing parts of the devices. Moreover, a French sporting good company created a ventilator out of a diving mask, while Dutch university released its patent so others can manufacture it as well.
Similarly, small and medium-sized companies, which had to modify their marketing strategies, sale and distribution channels, represent endurance that gives them a fighting chance to weather the storm.
Businesses that were allowed to operate had to quickly adapt to the new social distancing measures and re-organise the majority of their work procedures. With little support from the authorities, most of them were able to create a safe space for both employees and customers in no time.
With many restaurants and bars closed, small craft breweries in Belgium faced a significant loss or even bankruptcies. However, they quickly found ways to reach customers in a new way. Within a couple of weeks, thirsty beer lovers in Brussels were able to place orders via an online store and expect a carbon-free delivery to their doorsteps. Similarly, many other local shops and restaurants embraced new digital technologies and maintained their services even during the lockdown.
These are only some remarkable and heartening examples of solidarity, resilience and creativity of the European society. Without a doubt, event more examples can tell stories of citizens, businesses and academia finding their strengths and putting it in good use.
Although the pandemic outbreak in the EU is far from over, we should nevertheless analyse the past couple of weeks and draw conclusions for the future. As we don’t know what comes next, we need to design mechanisms that are quickly adaptable to the on-going situation, and we need to be flexible. Similarly to the European Commission that has relaxed the stringent regulations to provide the first respondents with the necessary equipment, published standards for everyone to cooperate, lifted certain transport restrictions and introduced ‘green lanes’ to ensure uninterrupted food supplies.
We need to use more common sense and put human beings in the centre of the discussion for future recovery and preparedness. Instead of focusing on directives and rules, we should ask ourselves what is needed for European citizens to succeed.
European businesses and citizens have shown that they could quickly adapt to new circumstances. The creativity of their solutions was unmatched by those of the governments. Now, we should use these experiences and re-examine current directives and objectives in line with the actual needs of the people.
There are many possible ways to move forward and prevent further damages to the social contract. Some are proclaiming the end of globalisation and a need to retreat to the autarkic economic model. Others are advocating maintaining the status quo of the liberal order. Most likely, we will end up somewhere between these two.
The objectives of free trade and open markets uphold by the European Commission are admirable and should also apply to internal market regulations and practices moving forward. Commissioner Hogan rightfully said that it is practically impossible for Europe to be self-sufficient. The EU must cooperate internationally and internally to provide goods and services to its citizens. It’s therefore crucial that we create a level playing field for every business – big and small.
Consequently, we should aim to build resilience to withhold any future natural disasters, bioterrorism, climate emergency or financial recession. Clear, non-discriminatory rules and competent, effective administration are needed to promote versatility and strength in the communities and among businesses.
The EU acquis communitarie is extensive and regulates almost every aspect of the European economy. Yet, it does not necessarily provide a supportive environment when responding to the immediate emergency. It might also not prevent governments for other erratic decisions when future crisis strikes.
Therefore, the next strategy for Europe should ensure the right balance between economic and social ambitions. Governments need to support vulnerable groups but also reduce disincentives to work. Entrepreneurs that persisted despite the crisis should be rewarded. Well-managed companies should be able to grow further. Taxation schemes should not be punitive but should encourage further investments, innovations and employment.
Europeans are resolute and united in times of hardship. We have an entrepreneurial spirit and support each other, even when the governments fail. Erecting borders in Europe have separated friends and families, but also make us realised that we are one Union and cannot prosper without each another.
We need to make sure that the next economic recovery plan will support these qualities, and we will not dismiss these experiences. Any future strategy for Europe should strengthen the entrepreneurs, open up opportunities for cooperation and innovation, increase digitalisation and create smart regulations when necessary. Cutting the ‘red-tape’, reform unfriendly tax regimes, and reducing government inefficiencies should be the priority. It’s time to create smart regulations, remove legal uncertainties and put personal prosperity and freedom at the core of our economy.
The European Commission says that they want to make the EU economy work for its citizens. However, it’s the Europeans who build the economy every day, and which is an inherent part of their lives. And many of these citizens passed the current test better than many governments or institutions. So if we want an economy that no only works for the Europeans but also with them, we should not forget the endurance, dedication and business acumen while thinking about future economic recovery.