The coronavirus outbreak: a critical test for the European Union

30th March 2020

Alexis Roig

CEO of SciTech DiploHub


In light of the fragility of European governance and the absence of coordinated policies, science diplomacy opens a window of opportunity
The epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak moved from China to Europe in the first half of March. Despite being a scientific research superpower and a pioneering example of regional integration, Europe has failed so far at deploying a consistent and coordinated response to the COVID-19 crisis.
While hundreds of millions of citizens are confined at home and certain national healthcare systems could collapse in the upcoming days, we have witnessed how, during the firsts days of the pandemic, some European countries limited medical equipment exports to other countries, undermining the EU single market and putting citizens at risk.

At the same time, in an unprecedented diplomatic move, China decided to send airplanes full of ventilators and face masks to European countries and the Russian army was deployed in Italy to support the disinfection of nursing homes and streets.

Some European countries channeled humanitarian assistance from other EU member states through NATO instead of resorting to the European Commission. And Hungary passed a law that allows its prime minister to rule by decree for as long as this crisis lasts. On the other hand, the traditional north-south divide is blocking any speedy progress on new funding sources such as the Eurobonds or the European Stability Mechanism.

However, it’s not all bad news for the European project. The Commission has already mobilized around €200 million through the European Innovation Council and the Horizon 2020 Program to fund promising research on vaccines, diagnostic tools, and new treatments. Scientists across Europe are coming together and sharing their data at a rapid pace, shining a light on the crucial role of science diplomacy. On the other hand, the French biomedical research agency (Inserm) announced that it will coordinate a multinational clinical trial in Europe, with patients from at least seven countries. Last Thursday, the European Commission also launched a new €100 billion relief initiative that will provide loans to support job creation. Slowly, more efforts are being made to help member states coordinate their national responses and solidarity between European countries is, fortunately, starting to become a reality.

But what have been the main differences among member states' responses? How could the European Union harness its scale and scientific knowledge to organize a true European response? How does the post-Brexit UK fit into this scenario? How should the role of scientific policy advice and science diplomacy be? What will be the long-term impact of this crisis on the European integration process?

To discuss some of these issues, at SciTech DiploHub, Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, we held the second of our online sessions, under the title “The COVID-19 crisis in Europe: a failure of science diplomacy?”. These SciDipTalks bring together leading specialists in global health, science diplomacy, technology and geopolitics from world-class institutions to open up and bring in-depth analysis and expertise on the current outbreak to the public debate.

According to Pol Morillas, Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), a major question which still needs to be addressed is «whether the current crisis will serve the purpose of reform within the European Union by ending institutional deadlocks, building awareness of own weaknesses and contributing to better common policy in the future». He outlined that «although we can’t ask the EU to deploy a rapid response against the COVID-19 pandemic today, it would be desirable to start laying the foundations of new system-level strategies to improve emergency preparedness before the following outbreak». A better global governance for addressing common matters of interest must come out of this crisis. And if it so happens, the EU is better equipped to make the most out of it.

The reemergence of several traditional paradigms within European diplomatic action and international affairs was one of the points raised by Ivo Šlosarčík, Professor of European Integration Studies and Jean Monnet Chair in EU Politics and Administration at Charles University in Prague and Research fellow at the S4D4C Project from the European Commission. According to Dr. Šlosarčík, we are witnessing a triple comeback: the return of the experts and scientific evidence in public policy, the rise of the nation-state, and the revival of bilateral diplomacy between EU member states, even at the expense of the European Union. He also highlighted that the current crisis is «opening a Pandora's box: the conflict of legitimate power when we approach science policy and diplomacy». Should it be the politicians and diplomats or the scientific experts the ones with executive power and regulatory capacity in a public health emergency?

Sara Cebrian, Science and Innovation Attaché of the British Embassy in Madrid, delved into the wide array of scientific policy advice mechanisms embedded in the executive powers in the UK, including the cross-government Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) and the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which aims to provide scientific advice in emergencies such as COVID-19 through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). She also stressed the role of science diplomacy in the light of the current pandemic and explained how the UK Science and Innovation Network (SIN), which includes more than 90 officers based in embassies and consulates in over 30 countries around the globe, «is monitoring the different national approaches to health crisis management and bringing this scientific inputs back home to the UK».

Due to the fragility of European governance and the absence of coordinated policies, public health strategies and limiting mobility remain national jurisdiction. While European leaders have been closing their national borders, scientists have been strengthening global collaborations like never before. Our best defense for this and upcoming global health crises is more transnational cooperation. This pandemic only proves the imperative need for further integration in the European project. Time will show if this crisis will be an opportunity for the long-awaited reforms to improve the functioning of European and global governance mechanisms.

The EU must take this opportunity to show that protection of public health and scientific cooperation are still at the core of the European project. In a significantly integrated union, uncoordinated national responses will not be enough. In this exceptional time, the EU must play its part, deploying a truly inclusive response, built upon research cooperation and science diplomacy. Within Europe and between Europe and other regions in the world. The cost of coordinated actions today will be much lower than the cost of late and disorderly measures. The coronavirus outbreak is a critical test for economic, scientific and political integration, will the EU rise to the challenge?


Alexis Roig is CEO of SciTech DiploHub, the Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, Professor at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and has over 10 years’ experience as senior advisor on science diplomacy for ministries of Foreign Affairs, Science, Research and Education across Asia and Europe.

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Watch the video of the online seminar “The COVID-19 Crisis in Europe: A Failure of Science Diplomacy”::