Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Von der Leyen told MEPs, “It is true that no one was really ready for this pandemic. It is also true that some were not there on time when others needed their help...For this, Europe offers a heartfelt apology.”
Her comments come in the wake of criticism that the EU was slow to react to the outbreak of the virus in Italy and then in Spain. Member states have also been accused of acting in an uncoordinated way.
She pointed to the various EU economic measures subsequently taken, adding, “The true Europe is now standing up and we see great solidarity.” Even so, she said “there are still some, however, who want to point the finger and apportion blame. I say to them: Stop it.”
She was personally in Parliament for a debate with MEPs on the assorted package of Commission measures to tackle the crisis. Deputies are expected to back the proposals in a vote on Friday.
This includes what the EPP, Parliament’s biggest group, calls an “unprecedented” sum of €3 billion of the EU budget to help Member States cope with the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The chamber was sparsely attended with the vast majority of MEPs taking part online. Several attacked the EU’s initial response to the pandemic, saying it was “too slow” and fragmented and that some Member States, notably Italy and Spain, had been “left alone.”
Other members also said some EU countries, notably Hungary, had “abused” the crisis to underpin their own authority.
In her address to members, Von der Leyen admitted, “We are now reaching the limits of what we can do.” She added, “Europe has had economic crises before but it has not had an economic shutdown like this before.”
She made a point of saying that “no one is to blame” for the crisis, adding, “We [the EU] have needed to take unprecedented fiscal action to ensure our economies are ready to bounce back as soon as possible...The EU has done more in the last four weeks than it did in first four years of the last crisis [in 2008].”
This includes, she said, the €540bn package adopted by the Eurogroup last week and she urged “all Member States to make the most of the SURE scheme, which will provide €100 billion for EU governments to help those in need.”
"It is true that no one was really ready for this pandemic. It is also true that some were not there on time when others needed their help. For this, Europe offers a heartfelt apology" Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
She also pledged that “each euro” from the EU’s cohesion funds will be put into funding the fight against the crisis and that “this will be sent to areas that need it the most.”
“The EU has now provided €3 trillion on this, which is the most impressive response to the crisis anywhere in the world. But we still need to do more because this is a long-haul job and the world tomorrow will look very different from the world of today.”
“That is why it is time to put the old divisions and recriminations behind us and to come out of our entrenched positions for this new world.”
She cautioned, “This will need massive investment to jump start our economies. For this we need a Marshall Plan for Europe.”
Von der Leyen told the session the “answer” was the EU budget, stating that the next long-term EU budget, the so-called MMF, will be the “budget mothership of our recovery.”
The former German defence minister said, “The next seven-year budget must now be very different and we must use the power of the whole budget to rebuild the single market. This will unlock massive private and public investment.”
A sign of the impact, she said, was that the crisis had “severely hit even healthy companies” adding, “the path to recovery will be a long road and this crisis will redefine our policies and, possibly, globalisation itself...The EU will therefore need to stick together through the thick and thin.”
She paid tribute to the “unbelievable bravery” of health workers and also recalled the victims of the crisis, saying, “It is easy to talk about the suffering of Europe and the world but we also have to relate the stories and the lives of those who have died and suffered.”
“I remember the Italian doctor who had come out of retirement to save others’ lives and the man who had to say goodbye to a brother through a hospital window in Ireland...We will never forget them. Their stories break our hearts.”
"It sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together and I have faith in our ability to cope" Charles Michel, Council President
Her Council counterpart Charles Michel, who was also in the chamber for the four-hour debate, paid tribute to “those who have had to put up with severe restrictions on their liberties of people” and said the EU’s “crisis exit roadmap” aims to “foster the best possible level of cooperation between Member States.”
It will, he told members, seek to provide an exit strategy to enable Member States to “gradually come out of the lockdowns and to relaunch and transform our economies.”
The former Belgian Prime Minister said Parliament “will guide our work in the short, medium and long term in the council.” Michel added, “It sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together and I have faith in our ability to cope.”
David Sassoli, Parliament’s president, told the plenary he “looks forward to a gradual relaxation of the lockdowns.”
He appealed for “an ordered and coordinated exit to avoid any backtracking or any devastating return to the crisis," and declared that "a maximum amount of resources must be made available to Member States".
Sassoli, a member from Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the outbreak, also expressed sadness for the victims of the crisis and voiced admiration for the care workers on the frontline.
He noted the efforts by Parliament to help, saying, “One Parliament building in Brussels is now being used for 100 homeless women and the Parliament buildings in Strasbourg and Luxembourg may also be used for emergency use.”
“These are difficult times and a lot still needs to be done, including a profound refection on our society. We want to exit this crisis stronger and more robust and to be able to better support health systems.”
EPP German deputy Monika Hohlmeier said the EU’s fiscal packages will allow the bloc to procure and distribute “much-needed medical equipment” such as masks and ventilators, finance the transportation of patients as well as support the construction of mobile field hospitals.
"These are difficult times and a lot still needs to be done, including a profound refection on our society. We want to exit this crisis stronger and more robust and to be able to better support health systems" David Sassoli, European Parliament President
Her Portuguese group colleague, José Manuel Fernandes, EPP spokesman in the budgets committee, added, “Divisions among Member States are detrimental to the EU response to COVID-19.”
Appearing via a video link, Dacian Cioloș, leader of the Renew Europe group, said, “We now need ambition to implement the EU measures to tackle the crisis. But let’s not wait for the next crisis. Let’s take the chance to be bold and learn some positive lessons from this.”
“The question is: What will Europe look like in the future?” added the former Prime Minister of Romania and EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development.
Greens co-leader Phillip Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who was in Parliament for the debate, said the crisis had “shown all the cracks in our societies that were ignored by our leaders for too long and that have how all come to light. These include the invisible people, the vulnerable and asylum seekers, who must not be forgotten.”
“There has been a greedy response by some - the Dutch response has been scandalous - and you have to wonder how essential for society are the heads of multinationals compared with bin collectors, shop workers and farmers.”
He said, however, that he remains confident that “the EU has the means to rebuild the European economy.”