A Missing Element in the Response to COVID-19: US-EU Cooperation

This week’s note is from Anthony Gardner, Brunswick Senior Advisor and former United States Ambassador to the European Union (2014-17) and Director for European Affairs, National Security Council (1994-95). This article represents his own personal views.

In December 1995 I had the pleasure of attending a US-EU summit in Madrid to witness the signature of a historic document by US President Bill Clinton, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and European Commission President Jacques Santer. That document, to which I had contributed, set forth a detailed road map for US-EU cooperation in numerous areas, together with specific goals and timelines.

In that document the United States and the European Union undertook to establish an EU-US task force to develop and implement an effective global early warning system and response network for new and re-emerging communicable diseases such as AIDS and the Ebola virus, and to increase training and professional exchanges in this area.

Moreover, the US and the EU pledged to “coordinate our request to other nations and to international organisations calling for action against emerging and re-emerging communicable diseases.” They stated that they would work with the World Health Organisation to deal with “outbreak and reporting responsibilities and strengthened response centres.”


The US and the EU pledged to “coordinate our request to other nations and to international organisations calling for action against emerging and re-emerging communicable diseases."

While the US and EU did not make much progress toward these objectives, they did work closely and effectively (albeit belatedly) to combat the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa in March 2014. While EU member states played a critical role in containing the outbreak, the European Commission also played an important part. The appointment of an EU Ebola Coordinator helped ensure that the EU institutions and member states acted in a coordinated manner with each other and with international partners.

The coordinator ensured that the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid worked in harmony with all the other parts of the EU bureaucracy that had an important role. They included the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, responsible for foreign aid. Moreover, the Directorate-General for Health identified facilities in member states that were willing and able to accept Ebola patients, the Director-General for Internal Affairs (including justice and law enforcement) coordinated entry and exit procedures at airports in case of travellers suspected of having Ebola; the Directorate-General for Research worked to promote vaccines and therapies; and the European External Action Service maintained the EU’s diplomatic relations with the world, including African states stricken by the virus.

The United Kingdom and France played critical roles in Liberia and Guinea, respectively, especially by setting up mobile laboratories for testing, providing personal protective equipment, skilled doctors and significant financial aid. Out of a total €2 billion provided by the EU, the European Commission provided €870 million for emergency measures, financial support for the African Union’s own medical mission to the region, and long-term relief (such as budgetary support for the restoration of vital public services and the strengthening of food security).

Senior officials of the Obama administration responsible for the US response to the Ebola outbreak, including Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, appreciated the European Commission’s role as coordinator and conduit of critical information. This was particularly evident in the effort to ensure sufficient capacity for medical evacuation of infected health care professionals back to properly equipped treatment facilities in Europe.

In the current coronavirus crisis, alas, we have not seen any evident US-EU coordination. To the contrary, we have seen the spectacle of a US president accusing Europe of “seeding” US infections, without uttering one word of sympathy for US allies and without offering any help. Shipments of personal protective equipment from all over the world have been rerouted from their European destinations to the United States. President Trump has threatened to freeze funding for the World Health Organization, an international organization that (despite criticisms of how it has handled the Covid-19 crisis) is critical to ensure a global response.


In moments of great crisis, like the present, urgent issues crowd out the very important ones.

But even EU member states have joined in this unseemly free for all by closing off borders, refusing (at first) to provide needed medical support to their neighbours, and outbidding each other for supplies. The European Commission has struggled to provide a coordinated response.

In moments of great crisis, like the present, urgent issues crowd out the very important ones. But soon it will be time to dust off the New Transatlantic Agenda and breathe life into its recommendations about transatlantic coordination on communicable diseases. Such coordination could apply to joint research, exchanges of medical experts, sharing of data sets, joint investment in manufacturing facilities providing critical equipment, and the creation of a joint playbook of how to respond to future outbreaks. It might also include an agreement to eliminate all tariff and non-tariff barriers to transatlantic trade in goods useful to combating pandemic diseases.

We have already paid a price in failing to deliver on a key promise made one quarter of a century ago. It is likely that the pandemic will remain a major threat into next year, especially as it spreads through the developing world that has far fewer means to respond. A continuing failure of the US and the EU to coordinate, and lead a global response, will not only mean more deaths there, but also at home, imperilling the progress they have paid such a high price to achieve. 

Geopolitical Executive Briefing