TALLINN - The European Union should have an independent institution of expertise of its own for epidemiological crises, as the World Health Organization (WHO) showed itself to be very weak during the coronavirus crisis, Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik said on the "Esimene stuudio" ("First Studio") broadcast of public ETV television on Tuesday night.
According to Luik, what happened in the EU at the beginning of the crisis, when countries abruptly closed their borders, was a disappointment. Also the response to the epidemic was weak.
"Now we need to find the tools to be used when there is another crisis. Or when this same crisis continues in the fall. The legislation of the member states when it comes to a sanitary-epidemiological crisis differs very much. It definitely should be made more uniform. The European Union should have independent expertise in matters of epidemiology, because WHO, which should be dealing with such matters, unfortunately has shown itself to be very weak and seems to be a pawn of the big states," the minister from Isamaa party said.
As regards the rapid closing of borders by individual member states, Luik said that this was an extraordinary crisis and nobody was prepared for a pandemic as extensive as this.
"It was a worldwide crisis, therefore the mechanisms whereby one, two, three, four allies are helped did not start working," he said.
Luik pointed out that there has been no such situation before where everybody needs help simultaneously. Even a military conflict is not such where everybody would need help at the same time.
"This was a unique crisis. At the same time, it was sad to see that the instincts that worked first were not the ones directed towards international relations and borders were closed without a standing consultation," said Luik, adding that the European Union has "very many lessons" to draw from this.
The response to the economic crisis was better, according to Luik, yet the economies of the member states will be hit so hard that maintaining the level of defense spending in countries of Europe, not to speak of increasing them, will be very difficult.
"This is a big problem. More or less all defense ministers expressed their concern, as in many countries one would go after defense expenditures very quickly [during a crisis]. Not in all countries is national defense as popular as in Estonia," Luik said, commenting on an informal video meeting of EU ministers of defense earlier on Tuesday.
"The positive change that there has been in the defense budgets of European countries of late is in serious danger," he said.
At the same time, countries of Europe agree that the Russian threat has not disappeared. Luik said it could be seen right from the moment when the pandemic reached Europe that Russia began to take advantage of the confusion in its own interests.
"What we saw was a wish of Russia from the very beginning to profit by means of propaganda, also false propaganda, also attacks on social media -- all that arsenal that was employed -- the Russian tour to Italy, which bore the title 'From Russia with Love'," Luik said, adding that in his opinion it was a complete failure.
"First, equipment was brought [to Italy] which nobody needed. When the Italian media wrote about it, the Russian Foreign Ministry attacked the biggest daily newspapers of Italy and a major scandal erupted as a result. Now it's increasingly clear that the Russian machinery gathered as a relatively dense net around sites which can be described as military sites," Luik said.
According to the minister, Estonia was "100 percent prepared" for Russian activities from the moment the crisis started.
"Our knowledge of what is going on on the other side of the border is remarkable. It is difficult to imagine that [Russia] taking advantage of some situation could take us by surprise," Luik said.
The minister observed, however, that where the defense forces of Estonia are prepared for a crisis, the civilian system is not.
"The most painful problem for us has been that the civilian system was not ready for a massive crisis. It was not ready because nobody had seen a crisis like this before," the minister said. "It is clear that we must prepare the response capability of our civilian part starting with the existence of a stock of personal protective equipment of the state. This cannot be a stock of the defense forces alone, but a national stock. We are prepared to offer our storage space, management," Luik said.
The minister said it's also worthwhile remembering that the next crisis does not have to be about an epidemic or healthcare more broadly, which means that we should not be preparing ourselves for the next outbreak of coronavirus alone.