European Union’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic in the Southern Neighbourhood

  • Viktória Klanicová
  • 10.5.2021 19:33

European Union’s Southern Neighbourhood has even before pandemic been recognized as one of the world’s most economically disparate regions. Since the pandemic is exposing the limitations of power politics with regard to this region’s many socio-economic problems and inequalities, the EU has a chance to help make a positive difference with economic and vaccine assistance and to at least partially level the existing structural inequalities in the region.

European Union’s Southern Neighbourhood is a region with a significant level of instability which has direct implications for the European Union on issues such as migration, security, energy, trade, and the threat of cross-border conflict and lawlessness. Despite the fact that the lack of economic opportunities and social justice in countries of North Africa increases emigration and radicalization, the European Union has been unable to shape economic and political reform in the region as demonstrated by the events in Libya, where a regional and global proxy conflict has flared up while Europeans fail to come up with a coherent and united response. 

The European Union has heavily focused on tackling short-term migration and security concerns such as allocating around €57 million to support Libyan border management authorities, which have created a perception among North African countries that the EU sees them only as an external line of defence.  

These dynamics are to be expected to become only more apparent with the economic impact of the coronavirus. When powers such as China and Russia are expanding their involvement in the region, providing local governments with a chance to diversify their relationship, especially concerning the strategic role of trade and investment, the European Union is challenged to find a way to address these problems. 

However, above all, the EU’s fundamental interest in the region is to promote lasting stability and the construction of more resilient and legitimate state structures which would in return provide the ultimate foundation for the EU’s short-term objectives of suppressing migration and terrorism. It is, therefore, important to mention the EU's commitment to limit human suffering by continuously providing development assistance and humanitarian aid to countries in the region to support refugees and displaced people.   

 

European Union’s Response

From the initial outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Commission had an interest in building a global approach and cross-border coordination in handling the “world’s common enemy”. As part of its global response to the coronavirus outbreak, the European Commission started to alter and adjust its already ongoing assistance programmes in the Southern Neighbourhood to focus specifically on health, economic and social sectors. 

EU cooperation with the Southern Neighbourhood takes place in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Even before the pandemic, ENP has been able to allocate €20.5 billion for cooperation in key sectors such as good governance and rule of law, socio-economic development, migration and support to refugees, climate change, environment, energy and security.

By reorienting its programming for 2020, the EU was able to mobilise emergency support of over €2.3 billion. Out of these €96.3 million were allocated for immediate needs, €966.6 million were allocated to strengthen the health sector and €1.3 billion were allocated for the short and medium term to support the socio-economic recovery in the Southern Neighbourhood. 

At the regional level, as the first emergency response, the EU signed a contract with the European Centre for Disease Control to provide tailor-made support to all neighbourhood and enlargement countries to enhance the preparedness and response capacities in the amount of €9 million. 

At the specific country level in the Southern Neighbourhood, the EU projects in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are being reallocated to support national health systems to ensure continuity of critical health care during the pandemic and provide most-needed protective equipment, specific training and technical assistance in hospitals. For example, in Algeria, the EU has made available medical equipment for sanitary response through the support of €43 million to Algeria. Similarly, the EU has three public hospitals in Jordan with emergency healthcare and community-based health education. 

In addition, through the channels of the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the EU is also providing assistance at the local level to vulnerable communities including refugees or migrants. The assistance is focused on improving access to healthcare and alleviation of the effects of close proximity living conditions to Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. These funds play a vital role in providing emergency medical assistance, distribution of hygiene kits and support to basic health services and infrastructure. 

 

Impact of Vaccine Diplomacy in the Region

Both Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy in the region has inevitably focused on bolstering its position by strengthening relationships with their allies and creating new partnerships. Russia has succeeded in supplying Tunisia where the shipment of 30,000 Sputnik V doses were already delivered on March 9; earlier in February, Algeria announced that it would receive 40 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine and in addition Moscow granted Algerian authorities a license to manufacture the vaccine on its soil. Morocco, on the other hand, chose early on to rely on Chinese vaccines. A remarkable point, concerning at least the Russian vaccine diplomacy, is the fact that Russia itself did not manage to successfully suppress the pandemic at home.  

Nevertheless, all countries in European Southern Neighbourhood have signed up to the Covid-19 Vaccine Access (COVAX) Facility led by the World Health Organisation that aims to provide 20% of the world’s population with affordable vaccines. The EU played a significant role in launching and financing the initiative - where about a quarter of its almost €3bn in funding comes from the EU and its member states. Via COVAX initiative, on April 1, 2021, Egypt received its first shipment of 854,400 Covid-19 vaccine doses. 

The European Union must recognize that vaccine policies might influence its position in the region where relations with Russia and China could emerge stronger in a post-pandemic world with countries of the EU's Southern Neighbourhood. As it can be seen, Russia has exploited the European division and the retreat of the United States during the Donald Trump era. For this reason, the EU should further focus on projecting a united front in making the vaccines more available in the region, where perhaps if available, countries would have been less interested in going after Russian or Chinese vaccines. 

About author: Viktória Klanicová

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