"Not one single country on the planet has been prepared, fully prepared, for this kind of crisis. No one."
Those were the words of the man at the heart of the EU's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton.
COVID-19 is stretching Europe to its limits, exposing the bloc's weaknesses and straining solidarity between members.
Vital medical equipment has been running out, critical supply chains have been disrupted and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, bringing businesses and industry to their knees.
Europe was caught off guard by the crisis, but now, says Breton, it's getting a battle plan in place.
In an interview with Euronews, he also said, "no single country will be left behind in this crisis."
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: This has been described as a war, now several weeks into the crisis, you are in this war cabinet. How in control is the EU of its response?
Thierry Breton: It's important to remind everyone that not one single country on the planet has been prepared, fully prepared, for this kind of crisis. No one, you all remember that at the end of last year we discovered the virus in China. I can tell you the truth. Nobody took it very seriously except that in early January we received a call of urgency from China. A call for help and we sent 56 tonnes of products, masks gloves, everything, including ventilators.
Unfortunately, the pandemic moved into Europe and then around the world. The first thing was to make sure that we had equipment and then to increase drastically the production of equipment that we had in Europe.
I did it myself calling all industries and they reacted extremely well, increasing their productions 2 or 3 times, working 24 hours a day. But it wasn't enough, of course.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: How controlled is the EU when we look at the overall picture of the member states?
Thierry Breton: Now, of course, the strategy is very clear. We decided that we will be fully self-sustainable in terms of equipment and we will be in the next few months.
It's extremely important because of course, we need this to protect our people, of course, the health personals but also all our fellow citizens and when they have to go back to work, we know they will have to do this being fully equipped.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: When you say you'll be fully self-sufficient. What in what terms? In terms of the medical equipment that has been running short, and the ventilators, all this will now be produced in Europe?
Thierry Breton: So we are talking about personal protection equipment and it will be in the next few months, hopefully. In between, of course, we have experts in those things, China or others. And I think that now it's getting better. It has been extremely challenging as it has been in other countries, the UK, and now the US. But of course, for us, we believe that in the next few months we'll be self sustainable.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: Can you be any more precise, when you say the next few months, do you have a more precise timeline?
Thierry Breton: No. But we believe that it's an unbelievable achievement. Just to give you an idea. China and Asia are ready to produce a hundred and fifty million masks per day. It was not at all the case in February, so we believe it will be possible to do. But now, of course, this is another very important time-critical situation because we know that the equipment is needed for a lot of patients in critical condition. And of course, we did exactly the same thing. We increased production. But this was not enough. So we called together with the president, Ursula von der Leyen and a lot of industries, like car industries, aircraft industries, many, many industries, we could probably channel their production line and increase production in Europe. And the answer has been tremendous. Just to give you an example, in France the production was roughly 500 per year And now within the next 50 days, with this consortium, they committed to producing 10,000 of this equipment.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: Prices skyrocketed on some goods. And there are concerns that the supply chain could still break down in some areas. Is a price rise on certain goods inevitable as this pandemic continues to flow through the EU?
Thierry Breton: You know, we have a very robust set of enforcement tools to track that and we will apply them immediately. I will not hesitate to use my enforcement power to do this as soon as we see it. We have developed a very powerful set of tools to track this. We are monitoring it and if I see something like this, we will not hesitate to intervene and use the enforcement tools that I have in my position.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: So you can force member states to bring the prices down of some goods if you see this happening?
Thierry Breton: Everything which is abnormal regarding the markets , regarding regulations…yes.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews We've been hearing the latest data from the European Trade Union Confederation estimating that a million jobs have been lost in the past two weeks because of this pandemic. Now, SMEs count for two-thirds of jobs across the EU. Given what we're seeing, this is only the tip of the iceberg, isn't it?
Thierry Breton: Well, I don't want to say this because firstly I was protecting jobs as a priority, under the priority of the commission and President von der Leyen, who have launched a specific fund, called SURE to provide help and support for the member states who need to help during this period.
Hopefully, it will not last forever, of course. But to give munition for states to help maintain people, this is a pretty big fund, one hundred billion euros.
Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: But countries like Spain and Italy are at the forefront of this. They're going to need these funds more than most. Solidarity is in short supply. Germany and the Netherlands have not been wanting to play ball when it comes to the mutualisation of debt. Is that going to change?
Thierry Breton: First, what is extremely important is to make sure that every single European country has their own plans, in order to rescue and allow their industry and companies to rebound during and after other crisis.
Germany already built this plan and this plan was voted on last week in the Bundestag. It’s a huge plan, 156 billion euros. No single country has the money for that. Germany does not have the money, the Netherlands doesn’t have the money, France does not have the money
No one, not one single country in the EU could afford this plan. They all will have to borrow the money. No single country will be left aside in this crisis.