Maybe it was to be expected?! The outbreak of the coronavirus has prompted siren-calls from Remainers about the health-security implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Strange, though, how we haven’t seen anyone put forward a serious argument for Japan to subsume itself into a political union with China in order to ensure that it’s better prepared for similar events in future… But no matter, I’ll try to address the point regardless.
Under the current system, the EU regime for communicable disease control is coordinated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm. In turn, the ECDC works closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is responsible for co-ordinating the International Health Regulations.
The first thing to bear in mind here is that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the EU, the UK will continue to participate in the WHO system, which is a kind of baseline fallback similar to what the World Trade Organisation (WTO) would be in the event of a no-deal scenario with regard to trade. However, the WHO is a rare breed among international organisations, in that it has a legally binding mandate over its members. This includes obligations on member states to cooperate with WHO, and with one another, in order to contain public health threats for the sake of the international community.
Of course, there are notable differences in the levels of sophistication of public health authorities between member states; and although the EU pools resources and sovereignty when it comes to the response to events such as coronavirus, there is a significant discrepancy between the capabilities of the health authorities in, say, Romania and Germany. And herein lies the chink in Europe’s armour: a heterogenous continent that desperately clings to ideological trophies such as freedom of movement finds it very difficult to formulate an effective collective response to exogenous threats. We saw it with the migration crisis and we’re beginning to see it with coronavirus.
Up until now, the largest outbreak of the virus outside of Asia has taken place in Italy. Despite this, the EU authorities have resisted calls to suspend the Schengen free travel zone, and instead cautioned against a “panic” response. This strikes me as a pretty blasé attitude to take, especially given that it is generally agreed that the Chinese have done a pretty good job of preventing the spread of the virus precisely by restricting travel and freedom of movement. Instead, individual states are being forced to take their own measures: Austria has announced enhanced checks on its border with Italy, as has Switzerland, for example.
With individual states being forced to act unilaterally to prevent the spread of the virus and protect their own citizens, this calls into question the EU’s crisis management credentials. There is a clear line to be drawn here between co-operation, on the one hand, and collective decision-making, on the other: the first is essential; the latter can cause confusion and paralysis at its worst.
And may I remind readers that blindly relying on an overarching ‘authority’ to take care of the public is by no means a guarantee that silly mistakes won’t be made. Italy, which has the largest Chinese population in Europe due to the textiles business and key port links, took early action to stop flights to and from Wuhan. But being part of the ECDC didn’t bestow enough common sense on the Italian authorities to screen passengers flying from China via indirect routes.
I think we can all accept that information sharing is paramount when it comes to health security in the 21stcentury, which is why I believe that whatever the future relationship between the UK and the EU, there will be a pretty comprehensive agreement struck between the two parties in this regard. As of now it is unclear whether this will take the form of the UK remaining part of the ECDC, but it is in the EU’s interest as much as the UK’s to maintain a high level of co-operation – I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting otherwise.
However, were the EU to play hard ball on this matter and include continued co-operation as part of the negotiations, they would be doing themselves a grave disservice. The UK has considerable expertise in health protection and is regarded as one of Europe’s leaders in disease control, not to mention the fact that it also has one of Europe’s biggest research hubs by virtue of its huge university sector.
The UK and the EU have much to offer each other in the interests of continued cooperation on this matter – but as part of a healthy relationship between equal partners.