By reinforcing Europe’s foundation built on solidarity, Robert Schuman’s dream, as well as that of the European Union’s Founding Fathers, is still alive and can help the European people overcome the crisis provoked by the pandemic. On the eve of Europe Day, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaks with L’Osservatore Romano and Vatican News regarding the major issues of the moment, of the commitment to find a vaccine for Covid-19, and the measures needed to sustain the continent’s economy. In addition, Von der Leyen reflects on Pope Francis’s appeal regarding the unity of the European peoples against nationalistic selfishness and the role that the European Union can have at the international level after the pandemic is over.
President Ursula von der Leyen, just months after your election to head the European Commission, you find yourself facing an unprecedented crisis for Europe. How are you personally coping during this difficult moment?
This crisis is testing all of us to the limit. For two month now, I have been spending most of my time in the Berlaymont, the Commission's building in Brussels. Because of the risk of infection, there is currently only a core team of about a dozen close staff working there. I talk to the Commissioners every day by video, even if they are in the same building. At least once a day, I try to get some fresh air and to see the sun. And sometimes I manage to go jogging somewhere green. That's what the soul needs. I talk as well to my husband and adult children on video every night. I’m glad, that they’re all well. I also think of the many families who are not so lucky and have to worry a lot about their loved ones. This is what motivates me in my work as President of the Commission to help countries and people around the world to cope with this deep crisis in the best possible way. Many people currently have to stay at home. I have the chance to do a lot. This helps me.
We will celebrate Europe Day on the 9th of May. What can this day mean today for European citizens in the throes of the gravest crisis since the Second World War?
The European Union has changed the fate of our continent for the better. It was born on the ashes of a crisis which devastated the continent. And it is in times of crisis like the one we go through that we can appreciate its true value. For my parents, Europe was peace. For my generation it is freedom and rule of law. For the generation of my children, it is future and openness towards the world. Sometimes we take Europe for granted. We forget how precious it is to live in economic prosperity, social cohesion, in the respect of human rights. Like freedom and good health, we appreciate their real value only when we fear losing them. The current pandemic is a painful reminder of this. As Alcide De Gasperi said: "Solo se saremo uniti saremo forti, solo se saremo forti saremo liberi" (“Only if we are united will we be strong, only if we are strong will we be free”). We must continue to work for a closer, more united Europe. This year, Europe Day will be a little different. But I hope it can still be a moment of celebration for all Europeans, a celebration of friendship, unity and solidarity among countries and people.
In this moment of the pandemic, Pope Francis has urged Europe several times to return to the Founding Fathers' dream, a dream of solidarity and peace. Is it possible to attain that dream? How can it be made concrete?
On 9 May, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the declaration of Robert Schuman, which turned out to be the starting point of our journey towards the European Union. Schuman's declaration changed the fate of our continent. His demands for a united and solidary Europe are more valid than ever. Today, I see no greater tribute to Schuman’s words than the solidarity between EU countries. The Romanian and Norwegian doctors and nurses going to Bergamo to tend to the sick, Germany offering its intensive care capacities to patients from Italy, France, the Netherlands and the Czechia is delivering masks to Spain. The Corona shock also carries a salutary message in a broader sense: those who look only to themselves will not get far. We can only overcome major crises, conflicts and reforms together. That also applies to the recovery plan or our European Union. It must be powerful and draw Europe's path into the future in broad brushstrokes. I am fighting for a Europe based on solidarity, which courageously embraces the green and digital opportunities and is more robustly prepared for future crises.
The pandemic is bringing into the open new nationalistic selfishness. Even Pope Francis has sounded the alarm about this. Do you fear that the European peoples might move further away from its continent-wide institutions? What can Europe's leaders do to avoid this from happening?
We have to be vigilant. But as we see now nationalistic governments around the globe have no answers in a pandemic, which knows neither borders, nor religions, nor skin colour. At the beginning of the crisis, some EU Member States had the reflex to withdraw onto themselves and take measures in an isolated way. But in the end, it was not effective and it created problems. So governments remembered rapidly that we can only protect our citizens if we work together, help each other and share. Together, we have taken hundreds of measures in the EU to ensure that hospitals in Italy or Spain have the equipment that they need, that essential goods, such as medicines or food can rapidly reach pharmacies or shops, that workers in border regions could cross the border to reach their workplace, and that people are kept in employment. Acting concretely to protect people’s health and their jobs is what we have to continue doing.
During the financial crisis of 2012, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank at the time, sustained that the Euro needed to be preserved at any cost. "Whatever it takes", he said. In your opinion, is the European Union today ready to do “whatever it takes” to save the Continent's economy?
We will do all we can to keep people in jobs and to support companies threatened by the collapse of economic activity. We have already taken many steps to support. We have changed the state aid rules to enable governments to support companies that struggle because of the crisis. We are using the full flexibility of our budgetary rules to allow governments to fight the crisis. The European Union has mobilised so far more than three trillion euros to support people, companies and the economy in our Member States. This is the most impressive economic response in the world. To give you just one tangible example: the EU will help keep people in jobs, by supporting short-time work. We are making €100 billion available for this scheme, similar to the cassa integrazione. Now we need to agree on a recovery plan, built around a strong EU budget, which enables our economies to bounce back. I am confident that all EU governments understand the magnitude of the challenge and that we will rise up to the task.
After this crisis, what role can Europe play on an international level? What will multilateralism look like after this crisis, in your opinion?
This virus shows how interconnected the world is. We are faced with a global pandemic and the only way to defeat this virus is through international cooperation and solidarity.
This was precisely the aim of the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event that I convened on 4 May, jointly with several EU governments and other partners. More than 50 heads of state and of governments, health organisations and business leaders from around the world joined us to raise money and kick-start unprecedented work on vaccines and treatments against the coronavirus. We pledged 7,4 billion euros – more than half of it from the European Union and its governments. And we brought under the same roof global organisations working to develop vaccines, treatments and diagnostic, and to make them available, at affordable prices, to the whole world. The success of this event has shown us, once more, the power of working together.