Diplomatic Feature: How the EU Tackled the Pandemic

by WL Author

By Roland Flamini

Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, who heads the European Union diplomatic delegation to the United States, has the dual role of representing the EU administration in Brussels and at the same time ensuring that all 27 EU embassies in Washington speak with one voice on issues of common interest to Europe. In this interview, Lambrinidis, a former foreign minister of Greece, and EU special representative for human rights, describes his embassy’s switch to crisis mode in an attempt to fulfill its role in exceptionally adverse circumstances—even for seasoned diplomats—and what diplomacy has learned from the experience.

ROLAND FLAMINI: What steps did the European Union Mission in Washington take when the pandemic broke in February/March in the U.S.?

STAVROS LAMBRINIDIS: We closed the Delegation in early March and everyone started teleworking except for a skeleton staff that would take turns coming to the office. And we reminded all our staff to always wear masks in public places and to socially distance. I immediately created a task force in the Delegation to advise on the myriad of necessary actions to ensure safety and business continuity. We of course relied heavily on our IT staff, who almost overnight had to switch everyone over to working from home. And I also communicated closely with staff and started writing a weekly message to the entire team to make sure we kept our feeling of togetherness, cohesion and effectiveness— despite being physically isolated from each other. And, throughout, we kept our close coordination with our colleagues at the EU member state embassies. Currently, there is a presence of maximum 20 percent of staff at the Delegation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the pandemic “arguably the biggest crisis of the European Union?” Do you agree with that assessment?

The economic and human toll of the pandemic has been devastating. It has taken lives and livelihoods on an unprecedented scale. And it became a test of European strength and solidarity—a test that, after a slow start, we have passed with flying colors. It took us just a few weeks to move beyond national measures and to lead the way, through unprecedented European solidarity and global cooperation, because it was clear to us that both were essential in fighting back such a global threat. Look at how much the EU has done in such a short time, from cushioning the economic blow of the coronavirus crisis to leading international efforts towards a truly global recovery. We organized joint procurement among the member states of PPE. We made 100 billion Euros available to keep Europeans in jobs. Trillions of Euros are being made available to our member states to protect lives and livelihoods. And we have—together with our member states and the EU financial institutions as part of our “Team Europe” initiative—provided massive assistance to the poorest around the world and to the countries most affected by the pandemic. I am especially proud of this showing of global EU solidarity.

The July 21 EU summit agreed on an $858 billion virus aid package within the EU budget. Is that program now being implemented?

The agreed package is a response to future economic growth challenges. It is unprecedented in size, it is targeted at the hardest hit areas of the Union and for the first time it is financed with common debt issuance. We put our money where our mouth is. You can see that already in the market reaction to the Recovery Plan— confidence in Europe jumped immediately. Borrowing costs have come down, spreads have narrowed, and there is increasing demand among investors for European assets. Given the huge interconnectedness of the European and American economies, if we succeed, this would be the best news for U.S. economic recovery as well, and vice versa.

When you eventually write your memoirs, how will you describe your personal experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic?

The EU memory I will perhaps hold most vividly is the feeling I had on May 9, the day we usually celebrate Europe Day. Instead of celebrating, this year we put on a virtual event to highlight the solidarity between Europe and the United States during this difficult time. We had European companies talk about how they helped their local communities in the U.S., and U.S. first responders talk about their heroic work. Members of Congress, D.C. Mayor Bowser, chef José Andrés and many, many others came on to talk about the ties that bind us and how we are all in this together. This event had massive viewership across the United States. It meant a lot to me personally and was an amazing outpouring of support.

What, if anything, will diplomacy want to retain from the operational changes introduced in the pandemic (virtual discussions, working from home, etc.)?

Diplomacy was already going through a rapid transformation prior to the pandemic. It was no longer enough to be a good negotiator— you also needed to master everything from a Twitter chat to a YouTube video. And Covid-19 has only accelerated that. Absent our ability to conduct diplomacy in person, we have had to come up with innovative ways of reaching people, fundamentally restructuring some of our normal real-world activities into digital activities. We organized very successful virtual panel discussions on transatlantic relations in the margins of the Republican and Democratic conventions. We have also continued to host meetings of the EU27 member states here in D.C. in virtual format—both for coordination purposes, but also for discussions and briefings with U.S. interlocutors on a range of policy issues. Nothing replaces face-to-face in diplomacy. But we can also continue to deploy our new digital tools—and often the best approach is when they work in tandem. When we look at the large number of people we can reach digitally it becomes clear that will be a big part of our strategy in coming years.

How could the pandemic have been avoided? When another pandemic comes along will the international community— will the EU—be better prepared, and if so, how?

The EU will absolutely be better prepared next time we face a pandemic, as we have taken several measures to strengthen our risk assessment and preparedness for future crises. And it is not a question of if, but when. We also need to step up our collective efforts with supporting and strengthening international organizations that are at the frontlines to defeat future health threats. Comprehensive monitoring, early warning, diversified and resilient supply chains for medicines and PPE, and a coordinated international response are all important elements in addressing serious cross-border health threats as soon as they emerge. There were clearly shortcomings in all of these.

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