News2020.05.28 08:00

EU pie is up for grabs. Don't punish Eastern Europe for handling corona crisis well – opinion

As the EU's post-corona budget is set to benefit those worst affected by the pandemic, Eastern and Central Europe shouldn't lose out only because they handled the crisis well, writes Craig Turp-Balazs for Emerging Europe.

One of the first articles I wrote after joining Emerging Europe back in 2017 was a piece advocating for the region to no longer be viewed as merely a low-cost production centre for western European manufacturers, but as the home of highly-skilled, innovative and talented people.

The challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed many of these talented and innovative people to shine. Nations in Central and Eastern Europe – led by Estonia – were among the first in the world to organise hackathons to create solutions designed to slow the spread of the virus, and to mitigate its effects. Latvia will this week become one of the first country’s in the world to launch a contact tracing smartphone app based on the Google/Apple API.

Read more: Coronavirus in Lithuania ‘under control’, health authorities say

The Lithuanian capital Vilnius has been a veritable mine of great ideas to support local businesses, as well using the crisis – and the city’s response to it – as a way of keeping the city in the public eye across the world.

Montenegro at the weekend became the first country in Europe to declare itself free of coronavirus, while Georgia plans on relaunching tourism with the simply slogan: The Safe Destination. The slogan has been made possible by the country’s enormously successful efforts to keep the number of infections to a minimum. Efforts that have been recognised across the world.

In Slovakia, President Zuzana Čaputová has led from the front, becoming a fashion icon across the world for her stylish face masks. Bulgaria’s otherwise overly-populist prime minister Boyko Borissov has won plaudits for by and large standing aside and handing control of the country’s Covid-19 emergency response to an army general, who, with no political capital to lose, imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdown regimes.

It worked.

Rates of both infection and deaths across emerging Europe have been consistently lower than in the west of the continent, and while there are some cross-regional specific reasons for this – Covid-19 arrived later, Central and Eastern Europe has fewer intercontinental flight connections – most evidence points to the swift action taken by the region’s governments as the primary motive behind the low numbers.

Read more: Light at the end of corona tunnel?

The rewards of that swift action are now being reaped. Cafes, bars and restaurants are now open across the region, albeit with some social distancing measures still in place. Shopping malls are open, in some countries children are heading back to school. The Baltic states have set up a travel bubble. Slovenes travelled to the Croatian coast at the weekend. Life is slowly returning to normal.

In the early stages of the pandemic there was a great deal of concern throughout Central and Eastern Europe over how resilient its healthcare services would cope. They have – with some exceptions – coped well, protected by strict lockdowns that kept infections to a minimum.

Read more: How much will coronavirus hurt European democracy?

The economic impact of those strict lockdowns will be felt for months, perhaps years. Some businesses have already closed. Others – especially in the tourism industry – will not survive a slower than usual summer season.

But the region has so far been spared the huge numbers of unemployed seen in the UK where confinement measures were put in place too late and which now cannot be safely lifted for fear of a new wave of infections. Just as the region is opening up for business, the UK is shutting up shop, imposing quarantine on new arrivals, three months after much of Central and Eastern Europe did the same.

With the resources at its disposal, it is doubtful, in fact, emerging Europe could have done any more. By making enormous sacrifices – not least giving up a great deal of personal freedom – the region has placed itself in a position to recover quickly, and must now be provided with the means to do so.

The European Commission will this week propose its blueprint for the European Union’s next 27-nation budget, known as the Multiannual Financial Framework, worth around a trillion euros, and the accompanying Coronavirus Recovery Fund.

Read more: Lithuania could get €6.3bn from EC's coronavirus recovery fund – EU commissioner

Central and Eastern Europe must not lose out on the generous development aid handouts it normally receives – handouts that allow it to catch up with its more wealthy peers – simply for having dealt with the coronavirus far more successfully than some of its western and southern neighbours.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said at the weekend that it would be “unfair to be penalised for being successful”.

He’s right.

Craig Turp-Balazs is the editor of Emerging Europe, partners of LRT English.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.

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