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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with European Commissioner Thierry Breton: A lesson learned from the crisis is that not one single country could win in today’s world

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Interview conducted by Robert Lupițu

One of lessons learned from the COVID pandemic crisis is that not one single country could win in today’s world, said European Commissioner Thierry Breton in an exclusive interview for CaleaEuropeană.ro, granted during his visit in Bucharest for meetings with political top officials to discuss the worrying situation of the pandemic and the low vaccination rate.

Calling for “political courage” on the part of decision-makers to implement the green certificate, Thierry Breton also called on Romanian citizens to get vaccinated, saying he was concerned about the situation in our country.

“I am worried, to tell you the truth. We are in a difficult situation. That’s why I come here to help, to support. Of course it is the responsibility of the country and I don’t want to interfere, but we are Europeans, we are friends, we are together, we understand each other. (…) You know that the vaccine works. You know that today we already have 3 billion people on our planet who have been vaccinated and it works. It has no side effects – explain this to your parents, if they hesitate, explain it to your grandparents! Because, after all, it can save lives and it can save us. (…) It will be very sad to have people die just because they didn’t make the effort to go and get vaccinated. Do it. It is in your hands,” said the European Commissioner.

He also spoke highly of Romania’s “digital strength”, welcoming the fact that Bucharest will host the EU’s new Cyber Security Competence Centre. This “demonstrates what I knew, even before I was commissioner, the strength of Romania, with fantastic engineers, extremely good digital engineers, very good companies, including unicorns,” Breton stressed.

Also responsible for the European Defence Fund component of his portfolio as commissioner, Thierry Breton said of Romania’s military mobility projects that he wanted to ensure that “together we can develop not only the right infrastructure but also the right technology for tomorrow”.

Finally, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market stressed the priority of improving the resilience of the strategic supply chain in the context of a partnership between the European Commission and industry. He cited the semiconductor crisis, but also the lessons learned from the crisis on the health side. “To tell you the truth, who would have thought 18 months ago that Europe would become the pharmacy of the world? We have. We did it for our European citizens and for the world”, he added

“We have many other areas where we are working, but we are working out just to secure our supply chain. This is a lesson that we have learned from the crisis and by the way, not one single country could win in today’s world. This is why we are so lucky and fortunate to be all together, Europeans”, concluded Thierry Breton.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Commissioner Breton, your visit to Bucharest is the first one since President von der Leyen gave the green light for the National Recovery and Resilience Plan for Romania. And it did so in in one of the most important hospitals in the fight against COVID. What is your evaluation after today’s discussions with Romanian officials about the worrying situation in regards to the pandemic?

Thierry Breton: I’m worried, to tell you the truth. We are in a difficult situation. First, we have a new wave of this pandemic coming. This is called the fifth wave and it’s coming everywhere but of course, countries where which have already a good vaccination rate are much more well preserved and people don’t go to hospital. They could get to disease but they don’t go to hospital. Unfortunately, for countries who are below 50% of the population, like in Romania, being vaccinated, then we see a number rising. And that’s terrible because we know that this is a dangerous disease. And we know also that we have the solution. And the solution is vaccination. Today, Europe is at more than 72-73% and it’s true that in Romania we are below 50 percent. This is why I come here to help to support. Of course it is the responsibility of the country and I don’t want to interfere, but we are Europeans, we are friends, we are together, we understand both. And my message is please address this, especially for the young generation. You know that the vaccine is working. You know that today we have already 3 billion inhabitants of our planet which have been vaccinated and it’s working. No side effect – Explain this to your parents if they hesitate explain this to your grandparents. Because at the end of the day it can save lifes and it can save us. So the message is very simple. We have the tool, we need to accelerate. The doses are here, we do not lack the vaccine. We are very lucky in Europe. We’re sending everywhere on the planet, because we have more dozes that we need. But we need to use it. It will be very sad that we have people dying just because they didn’t make the effort to go to be vaccinated. Do it! It’s in your hands!

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Despite being the 6th largest EU country, Romania has the second lowest vaccination rate against COVID-19 with only 7 million people who got the jab. Where did we got it wrong and what should be the next steps to booster the campaign, including tackling disinformation?

Thierry Breton: Well, disinformation is everywhere. And we know that disinformation is on the networks. I mean, other platforms. I mean, we have to educate our young generation but also everybody to say: “It’s not because you see an information, an Instagram or whatever, on Twitter, that it is true”. I mean, you should have your own judgment. And today, we are able in vaccination to have our own judgment, because we have now 3 billion individuals with who have been vaccinated without any single side effect, except that it’s working and I don’t go to hospital anymore. So it’s working. This is a true information. Everything else is of course, fake news and disinformation. But it’s true everywhere, not only in Romania. So, what should we do? It’s only one thing to do. First, it’s not my responsibility to say this, is the responsibility of the member states. But again, I’m here to see if we can support, if you need more vaccines, if you need more logistics. Unfortunately, we know that because of its low vaccination rates, we see hospitals in a very difficult situation. Probably one of the most tense in Europe. So we are sending help to support here. It’s common, we are European we are all together in European solidarity. But of course, I mean, being European means that we need to act as European helping each other. But you know, when you go to be vaccinated, you do it for you, you do it for others, you do it for your family, for your friends. You do it also for Europe, because we are Europeans. And we know that as long as we we still have some clusters. Of course, when you have only 50% of the population being vaccinated and there is a wave, then it’s a big cluster potentially in a big country like Romania. So that’s a problem. So do it also for Europe, because at the end of the day, we know that what saves us against the virus is definitely to be all together European vaccinated at the same time.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: You asked for political courage for the ongoing parliamentary debate on implementation of the digital COVID certificate – do you feel assured after today’s meetings?

Thierry Breton: Well, you know, I say this in general, I think it’s important because I know that sometimes especially in this very special situation we have to take a difficult decision. Of course, we would prefer to not use the digital certificate. But we know only for a few weeks doing this, having a digital certificate like we have today in 27 members but also because our European digital certificate works so well. while preserving our fundamental rights. I want to give you an information: 75 countries accepted our digital certificate. So it’s not only Europe, we did it, but it’s working so well that when preserving of course our right our sovereignty, our autonomy, our identity, other countries adopted it. So I think that yes, maybe some we say it’s a little bit against my freedom, but I make this effort for maybe a few weeks, because I know that it is a tool which will help us together in solidarity, to make sure that we protect ourselves, that we’ll be able to continue to live, we will continue to guarantee that we are not a risk cause and then the economy will be able to continue. Because if we enter into a new lockdown, not only it will be a tragedy for us as persons, it could be a tragedy also economically for us as a continent.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Your discussions with Romanian officials took place in the midst of both a political and governmental crisis. Is the European Commission worried about the overall landscape in Romania? Also, some of the ideas born from the negotiations between political families was the re-opening of NRRP negotiations. What is the European Commission’s message on this?

Thierry Breton: I think we don’t have to enter into the politics of member states. We are big democracies, and this is why Europe is what it is. It’s extremely important. It’s true that we have a special democratic moment now in Romania. We hope that we will have very soon a stable government that’s extremely important for us and for the country. It’s important also, including for what we spoke, about the vaccination campaign and for all the reforms. But you know, the plan has been adopted.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: So no-reopening of NRRP negotiations?

Thierry Breton: It will not be a reopening, of course not, but it has to be applied now very quickly. And we hope that yes, Romania with a new government will be better to put this in place as soon as possible because end of the day, it is just the interest of course of Romanian people. And the stronger Romania will be, the better it will be for Romania better so for Europe.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: At the level of the European Commission you cover a very wide portfolio, with the single market at its helm, but with clear distinct pillars: Digital Europe, cyber resilience, industry, military mobility. What is your expectations from Romania towards a digital transition and with the hosting of EU’s cyber centre?

Thierry Breton: First, I’m very happy and proud that Romania will host the Digital Cyber Center because it demonstrates what I knew, including before I was a commissioner, the strength of Romania, with fantastic engineers, extremely good in digital, very good companies, including unicorns. I visited a very famous one this morning in Bucharest. This is why we are very happy that Romania will be the center of our cyber resources and maybe defense, too. So I don’t have any expectation. I have some hope that we will be able to enhance it. I am convinced that we’ll be able to do it because this is a big strength of Romania. Some don’t know that Romania is so good at it. I know it especially because in my life I was a finance minister, but also a CEO in a digital company. And I always admire the quality of engineers here. So I’m very happy and I’m convinced that it is the beginning of a big, big thing.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: And with regards to military mobility, you discussed this topic with Defense Minister Ciucă. What can the European Commission do to support Romania’s infrastructure projects, especially for the Black Sea region?

Thierry Breton: I know that’s a very important project. I mean, everything which is here is part of the big plan for Romania. So I believe it’s a good thing. But of course, this is Romania’s priority. And my mission as a commissioner in charge of defense in the Commission, especially the European Defense Fund, is also to make sure that we will be able to develop together not only the right infrastructure, but also the right technology for tomorrow and this is also something which is probably as important as infrastructure.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: The single market, the industry and supply chain were affected during this crisis. Also, the medical urgency – from medical equipments to treatments and vaccines – has proved how important is the partnership between the decision makers and the industry for our resilience. What is the European Commission prepared to do to strengthen this partnership further in order to achieve this resilience goal?

Thierry Breton: This is a really, you know, in our industry strategies, we have many, many things at stake. But let’s say the most important thing for me today that we learned from this crisis, which is of course is not over, is to enhance the resilience of our strategic supply chain. And we have some strategic supply chains today that could be a little bit at risk. Of course, we spoke about health, but now we have been able to do whatever is necessary. To tell you the truth, who could have believed 18 months ago that Europe will become the pharmacy of the world? We did it. It wasn’t the case 18 months ago. We did it for our European citizens and for the world. We have also a problem of supply chain in semiconductors. We are working hard to make sure that we are able to relocate some activities and to be covered, so net exporter of chips which is extremely important. We have many other areas where we are working, but we are working out just to secure our supply chain. This is a lesson that we have learned from the crisis and by the way, not one single country could win in today’s world. This is why we are so lucky and fortunate to be all together, Europeans.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Thank you very much, Commissioner Breton, for this interview.

Thierry Breton: Thank you.

Robert Lupițu este redactor-șef, specialist în relații internaționale, jurnalist în afaceri europene și NATO. Robert este laureat al concursului ”Reporter și Blogger European” la categoria Editorial și co-autor al volumelor ”România transatlantică” și ”100 de pași pentru o cetățenie europeană activă”. Face parte din Global Shapers Community, o inițiativă World Economic Forum, și este Young Strategic Leader în cadrul inițiativelor The Aspen Institute. Din 2019, Robert este membru al programului #TT27 Leadership Academy organizat de European Political Strategy Center, think tank-ul Comisiei Europene.

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Dan Cărbunaru has been appointed spokesperson of the Romanian Government by Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă

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Eu Affairs Journalist, Dan Cărbunaru, founder-director of CaleaEuropeană.ro, has been appointed spokesperson of the Romanian Government by decision of Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă, published in the Monitorul Oficial.

Dan Cărbunaru is a journalist with more than 20 years of professional experience in European affairs, domestic politics and transatlantic relations.

He has worked for Romania’s main news agencies – Mediafax, Adevărul and Gândul – and later became the host of the TV show “Calea Europeană”, a talkshow on European affairs.

In 2007, he began to develop and broaden his area of expertise by taking up the position of Director of the Communication Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a position from which he distinguished himself by organising in 2007 the first European Home Affairs Communication Conference, an initiative supported and appreciated by EUROPOL and the British Embassy in Romania.

Since 2009 he has dedicated his efforts to his own media project – CaleaEuropeană.ro, a publication dedicated to European affairs, transatlantic relations and Romania’s role in Europe and the world. Today, CaleaEuropeană.ro is the largest European and transatlantic business media community in Romania and one of the largest in Europe.

Brussels correspondent for CaleaEuropeană.ro, Dan Cărbunaru has been a long term accredited journalist to the EU institutions and has reported on the most important moments of the last 15 years since Romania’s accession to the European Union.

After opening the series of Citizens’ Dialogues launched by the European Commission in the EU in 2017, Dan Cărbunaru was chosen to moderate European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s Dialogue with Romanian citizens on 11 May 2017 in Bucharest, the year Romania marked ten years since joining the EU.

Following the Agora – Future of Europe series of public debates, organised by CaleaEuropeană.ro, together with the European Commission Representation in Romania, to promote dialogue with citizens on the future of Europe, Dan Cărbunaru was invited to the biggest European communication event – EuropCom Days, in Brussels, to give a speech about engaging in dialogue with European citizens.

In 2021, Dan Cărbunaru has moderated the official launch of Romanian national debate within the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Dan Cărbunaru’s professional achievements are based on a thorough and wide-ranging academic effort. He graduated in law in 2000, with a research field of “Security in the European Community Area” and is a graduate of the National Defence College and the National Intelligence College. 

As a journalist and communications expert, Dan Cărbunaru has dedicated his work to developing, supporting and building networks of citizens who believe in the EU and transatlantic values.

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EPP MEP Vasile Blaga: The EU budget for 2022 boosted with significant additional funding for research and health

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The EU budget for 2022, the largest in the history of the Union, has been boosted with significant additional funding for research and health, said MEP Vasile Blaga (PNL, EPP) for CaleaEuropeana.ro.

Last week’s session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg approved the European Union’s budget for next year and we are dealing with a first: €169.5 billion for 2022, the largest amount ever approved, €480 million more than the European Commission’s proposal, 

“It is worth highlighting here the €100 million annual budget increase for the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, a key programme for boosting the EU’s competitiveness and economic development. I also note an increase in next year’s budget in the health sector, with the EU’s pandemic response programme EU4Health being funded by €51 million more than the Commission’s initial proposal, for a total of over €800 million,” the EPP MEP stressed. 

“It is extremely important not to forget that the pandemic is not over and investing in health is a priority for the European Union in the coming year. A joint effort by all member countries is needed to strengthen national health systems. The same is true in Romania – the national health system has the opportunity to benefit from important funds for modernisation and response, not only to the current pandemic, but also in the long term, to the current challenges in the system”, added the EPP MEP. 

The European Parliament last week approved the 2022 budget by 550 votes to 77 with 62 abstentions. The deal, which was agreed by the EU Council on 23 November, is due to take effect from 1 January 2022.

MEPs succeeded in increasing funding for programmes and policies that they believe contribute to post-pandemic recovery, in line with Parliament’s priorities set out in its guidelines for 2022.

These include the Horizon Europe research programme (+€100 million more than the Commission’s draft budget) and the LIFE programme for environment and climate action (+€47.5 million). The single market programme is boosted by €30 million (including €10 million for the tourism sector) and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office by €3.8 million, protecting European taxpayers’ money from criminals.

The Erasmus+ university mobility programme is another programme whose budget is reinforced, with an additional allocation of €35 million. The EU’s flagship health programme, EU4Health, gets a financial boost of €51 million to build a strong European Health Union and make national health systems more resilient.

The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI – Global Europe) has been boosted by €190 million, with a particular focus on fighting pandemics, including through vaccination.

Humanitarian aid has been increased by €211 million to allow the Solidarity and Emergency Aid Reserve to cover the increased needs of the EU Solidarity Fund in relation to natural disasters in the EU.

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HERA, essential for countries like Romania. European Union can gain strength in health crises

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© European Union, 2020

Romanian experts at national and European level argue that the European Health Emergency Response and Preparedness Authority (HERA) can bring important mechanisms, expected and needed at European level, but which need to be developed in complementarity with existing mechanisms that already have very good results.

National authorities, European decision-makers, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry responded to the initiative launched by Calea Europeană and the Romanian Association of International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (ARPIM) and held an open dialogue on the role of the new instrument launched by the European Commission, the European Health Emergency Response and Preparedness Authority (HERA), in preventing, detecting and responding rapidly to health emergencies, by collecting information and strengthening the necessary response capacities.

The main lessons learned by the European Union from the beginning of the pandemic to date were discussed, as well as the need to achieve a Health Union, which cannot be possible without the implementation of European mechanisms involving all Member States in preparing a joint response in the event of a future health crisis.

The European executive has succeeded in laying another “milestone of a Health Union” by launching a new instrument, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). This Authority was launched on 16 September and aims to guide the entire EU health system towards the vision of ‘One Health’. HERA is a key pillar of the European Health Union announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union 2020 speech and will fill a gap in EU health emergency response and preparedness.

HERA and its new tasks for a stronger Union in the face of health crises. How HERA becomes a key pillar of the European Union

The Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania, Ramona Chiriac, welcomed the new measures taken by the European Commission to improve the EU’s health security, as this authority is “the result of lessons learnt during the pandemic, which showed the limits of what the EU can do in health crisis situations.”

  • HERA reinforces the EU’s powers on health under the existing treaties. HERA’s mandate is forward-looking. HERA’s aim is to anticipate health crises by gathering intelligence, strengthening the necessary response capacity. So far, action in different policies has been taken reactively and not as part of an overall anticipatory management system.
  • This will be the new task, to ensure that the European Union and Member States are much better prepared to act in the face of a cross-border crisis, because the pandemic does not stop at national borders or even at European borders. HERA complements the agencies already in place.

The Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania, Ramona Chiriac, also stressed that HERA is chaired by the President of the European Commission, but is constantly mandated by the Council, which means that the will of each Member State is relevant in this construction.

Cooperation with industry within HERA will be essential to develop, manufacture, distribute countermeasures. Such a structured, responsive cooperation mechanism is vital for the implementation of robust supply chain strategies and supply chains with strategically autonomous states.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Member States have felt the need for a mechanism such as HERA. Romania must have a work core

Valeriu Gheorghiță, President of the CNCAV, present at the debate on the role of HERA, presented a preparedness and response structure in case of a health crisis, based on three pillars that should represent a working core: the prevention part, the pre-hospital part and the hospital part. According to the Romanian specialist, this preparedness and response strategy should have the following structure:

  1. Prevention strategy: vaccination as an effective means of limiting the spread of contagious disease, complemented by a population education strategy, because accessibility to vaccines is not enough. The population needs to be prepared and to understand that vaccination is a matter of course. Today’s children, who will be tomorrow’s adults, need to understand that vaccination is an added value. For the next health crisis, children must not be exposed to so many misinformation theories. We also need to improve training in diagnostic, surveillance and sequencing capacity: testing and diagnostic capacity is essential.
  2. Preparedness of the pre-hospital ambulatory medicine system for the identification and treatment of most forms of infections, of infectious diseases that can be very well managed in pre-hospital. There is a need for trained doctors and centres for diagnosis, treatment and access to effective therapies. HERA will enable easy accessibility and a centralised supply chain.
  3. Hospital preparedness: In pandemic conditions we need to have a response capacity, which means having modular structures and being able to quickly adapt hospital structures to a pandemic crisis or an epidemiological alert.

Stocks of health supplies and medicines were the main challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

Călin Alexandru, director in the Department for Emergency Situations, says a unified approach is now needed at European level.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for production mechanisms at European level for medical equipment and medicines to ensure that EU citizens can meet their needs in such a situation. An important element that HERA is aiming for is centralised procurement. Romania has so far made centralised purchases, but only at national level. Centralised procurement of vaccines at European level is a very good example of the fact that in such a situation cooperation is mandatory.

There is a need for collaboration and integration of public health response measures and HERA can bring a plus and a positive element. The measures taken by different countries in the first waves of the pandemic were not coordinated and even created difficulties in collaboration within the EU. Measures must be taken in the future that do not affect collaboration, either economic exchanges or the free movement of citizens between countries.

HERA will be the instrument that will ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical equipment among Member States.

Cristian Bușoi MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Industry Committee, explained the benefits of HERA for the resilience of Member States’ health systems.

  • HERA is a key pillar of the European Health Union which President von der Leyen announced in her annual speech as being of paramount importance for the European Union to be much better prepared in the future against health emergencies. HERA is not the only answer. We also have the EU health programme, EU4Health, which is totally different from the health programmes of the past. Decisions on health remain with the Member States, but the EU and the European institutions aim to contribute more and more in the years to come.
  • HERA will prevent, detect and respond quickly to health crises. HERA will also have to anticipate certain potential health threats and crises. HERA will be that instrument that will ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical equipment among Member States.

HERA, along with other European health initiatives, is essential for countries like Romania

Andrei Baciu, State Secretary of the Ministry of Health, reiterated the importance of HERA for a European Union better prepared to face new health threats, as well as Romania’s essential role in the HERA working groups.

  • HERA can be an extremely good opportunity for Romania because it will accelerate the development of internal mechanisms that mirror the work that HERA does. Romanians expect a high level of performance and Romania’s membership of such a European mechanism will force progress in Romania.
  • HERA, along with other European health initiatives, are essential for countries like Romania and the benefits of these efforts can be seen in everyday life. Such mechanisms are really the ones that have made it possible for Romania to have vaccines at the same time as any other Member State.The European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), essential for countries like Romania.

Romania has started the designation process and is aware of everything that is going on. Work is underway to set up these task forces. There is a lot of activity. Romania is already part of all the mechanisms within HERA and is on track with everything that has been requested so far.

Moreover, the Ministry of Health wants to make the most of these opportunities that this European initiative represents, precisely in order to generate in Romania a health system that can provide European advantages.

The Ministry of Health has said that it is essential for Romania to be part of such mechanisms, but the big problem in our country is that there is no institutional culture to learn from the difficulties we are going through. We have so many things to learn and so many things to improve in European health systems, and the most important advantage of this authority is that it institutionalises this ‘lessons learned’ mechanism and then comes up with concrete proposals.

National legislation must be drawn up to regulate the powers of each institution

The ANMDMR has informed its colleagues in the specialist structures about the HERA regulations. According to the ANMDMR representative, a crucial importance for HERA is the collaboration between HERA and national authorities. Even the Medicines Agency will be involved in this process, but at the moment it is not clear how. ANMDMR argues that a national regulatory act will have to be developed to regulate the tasks of each institution. Different aspects need to be regulated in order to be able to implement the regulation at national level as well. The ANMDMR will indirectly provide support in the working groups within HERA.

In order to ensure a rapid launch and building on the HERA incubator launched in February 2021, HERA will be established as an internal Commission structure and will become fully operational in early 2022. Its operation will be reviewed and adapted annually until 2025, when a full review will be carried out.

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