Over time, States have been experimenting with different ways of approaching international relations, hand in hand with the complexity of the interests involved and the nature of the objectives to be achieved. The international chessboard, initially made up exclusively of States, has been enriched with new subjects, making the international community more organised and contributing significantly to the development of the 'Law of International Organisations'.

Today, alongside the United Nations, several International Regional Organisations operate around the world, finding their legal basis in Chapter 8 of the UN Charter. Despite the (actual obsolete) contrast between universalism and regionalism - in vogue in the aftermath of the Cold War which paralysed the decision-making ability of the Security Council - these bodies have endowed themselves with legal instruments that, in full harmony with the regulatory framework of the UN Charter, it makes them autonomous to act within their sphere of competence.

When, on 11 March 2020, the Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom, in his "opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19", used the word "pandemic" for the first time, I couldn’t do without questioning the role that many of these macro-regional organizations would play. Two months after the declaration of the pandemic state, with more than 4million cases of contagion and 279478 deaths worldwide, it can be said that surprises were not lacking.

The European Union

The European Union is an international organisation unique in its kind, with an extremely advanced institutional and regulatory framework. From 9 May 1950, when the Schumann Declaration gave impetus to the integration process, the EU has been known several important historical stages before conquering its current structure with the Lisbon Treaties, signed on 13 December 2007. Currently, due to the willingness of the United Kingdom to leave the organisation, with its 27 Member States the EU is the prototype of what we can define as a “hard organisation”: a strong voluntas cooperandi by the Member States, a founding treaty in the sense indicated by articles 2.1.a) and 5 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties of 23 May 1969 which makes the organisation “Law oriented” and places the EU law in a position of supremacy over domestic law. Indeed, as argued by the EU Court of Justice in the Van Gend en Loos and Costa v. Enel judgments created "a new kind of legal order in the field of international law" and Article 47 of the TEU marks the status of a “legal personality”. The EU has a well-defined institutional structure through which is possible the implementation of its policies.

The coronavirus emergency is one of the biggest challenges to face since the WWII: the EU must be capable of responding in an effective way in primis in the health sector, but also setting up tools to tackle the socio-economic crisis, which could have worrying consequences not only for the Member States.

As always, the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the tendency by individual States to make their national interest prevail, rather than acting together as a single body. After an initial moment of uncertainty and confusion, appropriate actions have been undertaken by the European Institutions in various sectors. It’s worth having a look at their work.

EU’s coronavirus response

In January, The Directorate General for Health and Safety DG Sante, aware of the state of emergency in the city of Wuhan in China, opened up the Early Warning and Response System to let Member States to share information. Temporary restrictions were almost immediately adopted for non-essential travel to the EU, with an invitation by the Commission for extension until 15 May. Shortly, a Civil Protection Mechanism would be activated for the repatriation of EU citizens and the distribution of protective equipment, followed by a €10 million fund mobilised for coronavirus research, granted from the Horizon 2020 programme, with an additional package of €232 million. The Commission also intervened in the aviation industry sector through targeted legislation, in order to alleviate costs and at the same time preserve the environment, at risk in the presence of so-called "ghost flights".

So far, the EU Commission allocated over €380 million to medical equipment, providing the company CureVac with a European guarantee for an EIB loan, with the aim to launch clinically testing of a vaccine by June 2020. Direct support has been provided to national health systems with 2 programmes: Emergency Support Instrument, which supplies PPE to Member States and the UK, and RescEU, which places medical personnel in the most at-risk area, including refugee camps.

The EU Commission is working on economic measures acting with the European Investment Bank, ensuing the activation of the SURE (Temporary Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency), with a fund of up to €100 billion available to the Member States, as well as liquidity measures to support small and medium-sized businesses. These initiatives are part of the ECB's €750 billion economic measures under the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

On 4th May, the EU launched a fundraising marathon called "Coronavirus Global Response" together with various partners, which will last until the end of the month, underlining how the emergency is shared by everyone and nobody should be left behind.

Legal basis underpinning the EU Action

The most significant provision to refer to this massive EU action in response to the coronavirus emergency is Article 222 TFEU, properly known as the “solidarity clause”. This rule states to act jointly in a spirit of solidarity in the event that one of the Member States becomes victim of a natural or man-made disaster. Solidarity is one of the founding values underlying the organisation with a constant presence in the Treaties.

The Commission is the EU's executive body and has the right to present new legislative proposals to the Council and Parliament. As Article 17 of the TEU states, it shall "manage programmes" and "exercise coordinating, executive and management functions, as laid down in the Treaties”. Based on its powers recognised by Treaties, the Commission has been able to act in a perspective of solidarity in various other sectors than public health, which is still the prerogative of the States. The following rules must be called in case: Art.6(a) TFEU, which in matters of competence recognises to the Union the "protection and improvement of human health"; Art.4, par.2(k) TFEU gives shared competence between the Union and the Member States in “common safety concerns in public health matters”; Art.168 TFEU which defines in detail the EU action in the Public Health sector and recalls the two articles just mentioned.

As regards the Civil Protection Mechanism, Article 196 TFEU encourages cooperation and promotes coordination of Member States' civil protection systems, to be harmonized with the last Decision (EU) 2019/420 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 March 2019, amending Decision No 1313/2013/EU on a Union Civil Protection Mechanism.

This is a regulatory framework that outlines in an organic way how the EU faces a crisis like the one we are experiencing, analysing aspects ranging from Risk management, to the establishment of a European Civil Protection Pool, and to the maintenance of a network of knowledge of excellence to deal with different types of situations.

The role of ECB

On March 18, 2020, the ECB announced a securities purchase program, the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program, known by the acronym PEPP, for €750billion. With the Decision (EU) 2020/440 the ECB also clarified that the traditional limits for the asset purchase program would not apply to the aforementioned PEPP. This is an extraordinary measure adopted by the European Central Bank but which falls within the relevant objectives assigned by article 127 TFEU: maintaining price stability.

Other instruments prior to the pandemic however stand today alongside the PEPP. In 2015 the former President Mario Draghi launched the Quantitative Easing programme, an instrument that made the ECB itself a new investor, acting both on the monetary aspect and on the purchase of securities.


At the beginning of the health crisis, the European Union was called to respond with effective tools not only to deal with the immediate emergency, but with long-range policies to ensure the social and economic stability of the Union as a whole. The political interests of individual States have often been an obstacle, but it must be recognized that the EU has been ready to provide an adequate and unified response. By Antonella Chisena

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