On the external side, the EU is working hard to help bring back home stranded Europeans. It is also fully mobilised to help forge a global, multilateral response strategy and assisting those in fragile and conflict-affected countries.
Crucially, there is also a security and defence dimension to the current crisis. Yesterday, we discussed during a video conference of EU defence ministers the contribution that our military are making in the fight against the virus. In addition, they agreed on the need for the EU, also at a time of the corona crisis, to continue its security engagement through its missions and operations abroad. While much is uncertain in today’s world, one thing is clear: health is a real security issue.
The European Union is fighting the coronavirus and its consequences on all fronts. When it comes to the external side, we are heavily engaged to help with the repatriation of Europeans who are stranded abroad, so they can return home. We are also working to strengthen global coordination in the face of the pandemic. And we are confronting the ongoing ‘’infodemic’’ – the spreading of toxic messaging that can put lives at risk.
Our military and civilian security personnel are playing their full part in tackling the crisis. Yesterday I convened a videoconference with EU defence ministers precisely to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for European security and defence. We discussed the role of the military in addressing the crisis and the impact on EU missions and operations deployed around the world.
Our armed forces play a critical role in helping to contain the spread of the virus. They are providing transport and logistic support; building hospitals in record time; deploying their medical staff; and supporting the police and other national services. I was impressed to hear many examples from across Europe of how the armed forces are supporting the population in these trying times.
But this work is not only carried out within national borders: military planes have helped repatriate European Union citizens stranded abroad; they have carried patients from one country to the other; they have delivered equipment. This is European solidarity in action - and this story needs to be told. When Europe is attacked by its detractors – from within and outside the EU - we should not be afraid of setting the record straight.
We have military expertise at EU level that can be put at the service of strengthening mutual support among national armed forces. And we should make full use of it. This is why we are now working to set up a task force within the European External Action Service – led by the European Union Military Staff – to facilitate the exchange of information and best practices; to communicate more and better about what our militaries do and to draw lessons learnt together. It is important we share our knowledge, our experiences, our needs. Coordination with partners will of course remain a key pillar of our work – I am thinking notably of NATO and the UN.
The second point on our agenda was the EU’s security presence beyond our borders and the impact of the coronavirus on this work. Right now, the EU has almost 5,000 women and men deployed in our neighbourhood and beyond under the EU flag, in 17 civilian and military missions and operations. Yesterday we focused in particular on the military ones. We currently have six military missions and operations in place. The most recent is EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, launched last week, to help implement the arms embargo on Libya and work towards bringing peace and stability back to the country.
Our first concern is to guarantee the health and safety of our personnel and prevent the coronavirus from directly affecting the people serving in our missions and operations. Thanks to timely preventive measures, this is the case. However, as the virus spreads across the globe, it is essential that we maintain a presence on the ground and we continue to support our partners, even if our activities sometimes will need to be adapted in how we carry out our tasks.
We need to take into account how the virus is affecting the conflict situations in which the EU is operating. The clear risk is that the pandemic will exacerbate existing conflicts. For the interests of peace and our partners as well as our own, we must continue to support fragile countries and regions. We need to send a signal that our commitment towards peace and security remains unchanged. We cannot leave a dangerous void. Hence, with Member States we agreed to remain engaged and to find smart ways to adapt to the circumstances without discontinuing our support; and, where possible, to find ways to help our partners become more resilient in the face of the pandemic.
Finally, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic will have profound strategic implications which in turn will affect the EU’s security and defence policy. This pandemic is demonstrating that security cannot be understood in a narrow sense and that health has become a security issue. We all need to think hard about how we can improve our resilience and develop defence capabilities to address similar situations in the future. As we fight the crisis at home and abroad, we must plan for the future – and do so together.