In times of crisis, barriers are not the answer

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COMMENT EU must now take powerful measures in the field of trade policy. A constructive measure would be to completely remove import duties on necessary medical equipment, hand soap and disinfectants, imported from third countries, writes Anna Stellinger, Deputy Director General International and EU Affairs.

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"Today, the fight against COVID-19 is what faces us. Just like then, greater cooperation and exchange across borders - not short-term protectionist measures that build ineffective barriers - is what will lead us out of this crisis", writes Anna Stellinger, Deputy Director General International and EU Affairs.

European countries have always best solved major challenges together – it’s the very raison d’être of the EU. Immediately following the Second World War, it was about preventing new wars. Half a century later, there was the the financial crisis. Climate change is another example of a challenge we are currently seeking to solve together others. The most urgent of all current crises is undoubtedly the rapid spread of COVID-19. But how are the EU countries really handling this crisis of rarely seen measures? Is the EU up to the task?

European countries are closing their borders at a rapid pace; schools and universities are empty. Hotels are virtually deserted, and bars and restaurants are closed. Production is down in many regions. The head office thinking that most people can work from home is being sorely tested; in part because some work always needs to be done on site, and partly because connections and video technology do not keep up with what is demanded of them. Only time will tell which measures have been effective in stopping the spread of infection.

The health crisis is triggering an economic crisis of gigantic measures. International trade is being hit hard; free movement within the EU’s single market suffers. With the ”world factory” of China out of operation for some time, containerloads of required materials essential to production in Europe are missing. Trade in services, which has increased significantly in a globalised world, is also being heavily affected by flight bans and closed borders. The flow of goods, people, services and investments is profoundly disrupted globally.

While it is crucial to keep a cool head and use forceful measures to halt the health crisis, we must refrain from all counterproductive and protectionist actions that will end up harming each other and ourselves. It might be tempting to set up barriers, but history teaches us that it is rarely the right course to follow. Unfortunately, we see quite a few of those popping up. Perhaps the clearest example this last week has been the bans on exports of medical devices. The EU's internal market is crumbling. This is a lose-lose situation for businesses, consumers and citizens - and for patients.

In addition to keeping the single market intact, the EU must now take powerful measures in the field of trade policy. A constructive measure would be to completely remove import duties on necessary medical equipment, hand soap and disinfectants, imported from third countries.

Import duties can easily be removed quickly. The EU's loss of income from such a measure would be manageable. We should push for not only the EU to abolish these duties, but to do so at a global level. It would be an important proactive measure and fully in line with the WTO regulations and Agenda 2030.

In a crisis like this, the European Union is stronger when member states act together.No one can say yet how big the impact of the crisis will be on the economy, trade and jobs. Therefore, let's use the entire toolbox now. National measures, to forcefully support suffering economies, European measures to use the full benefits of the crucial single market and global actions, to remove costs and obstacles on necessary equipment. 

The EU was founded in order to prevent war. Today, the fight against COVID-19 is what faces us. Just like then, greater cooperation and exchange across borders - not short-term protectionist measures that build ineffective barriers - is what will lead us out of this crisis.

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