The Turn to Public Health Sovereignty: Assessing the Narrative Arc of the EU’s Covid-19 Response
While the EU traditionally had very limited involvement in public health policy, with only supporting competences in health policy (Greer et al. 2019), Brussels’ response to COVID-19 includes significant legislative and financial measures to promote what has been dubbed public health sovereignty or souveraineté sanitaire (Hackenbroich et al. 2020). Hence this paper examines the nature of this turn towards public health sovereignty. It does so empirically by examining the design and implementation of three key policies adapted by the EU in this area:
• stockpiling of personal protective equipment (PPE) under the RescEU scheme
• joint procurement of PPE and other medical countermeasures starting in February 2020 (using the 2014 Joint Procurement Agreement)
• the COVID-19 vaccine strategy (to allow for advance purchase of a potential vaccine) that pre-ordered vaccines starting in summer 2020
The paper also deploys a narrative policy framework (Jones and McBeth 2010; Gray and Jones 2016) to understand the distinctive policy story used to justify these new measures. It does so by examining the setting i.e. an emergency situation, the plot in the sense of the need to offer protection and solidarity, and the putative moral of the policy story associated with the COVID-19 response. The latter is shown to be linked to what EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell calls a “global battle of narratives” whereby rival states, notably China and Russia sought to undermine EU legitimacy via their own performative medial assistance. Thus the EU’s turn to health sovereignty should not be understood as an inward turn, but rather as part of a geopolitical strategy that involves demonstrating the EU’s ability to enforce its vision of the world and defend its own interests.
Gray, G. and Jones, M.D., 2016. A qualitative narrative policy framework? Examining the policy narratives of US campaign finance regulatory reform. Public Policy and Administration, 31(3), pp.193-220.
Greer, S.L., Fahy, N., Rozenblum, S., Jarman, H., Palm, W., Elliott, H. A., & Wismar, M. (2019). Everything you always wanted to know about European Union health policies but were afraid to ask. Copenhagen: World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe. Second Edition.
Hackenborich, J., Shapiro, J., & Varma, T. (2020). Health sovereignty: How to build a resilient European response to pandemics. European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief.
Jones, M.D. and McBeth, M.K., 2010. A narrative policy framework: Clear enough to be wrong?. Policy Studies Journal, 38(2), pp.329-353.