The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many financial and legal weaknesses in the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as its excessive vulnerability to external influence. Now Germany and France have taken it upon themselves to fix the international agency, including empowering the organisation to be more critical of member states that do not honour global rules on transparency in reporting health and disease issues. Proposed reforms recommend providing the WHO with increased funding and scope, the details of which are set to be discussed in September. France and Germany are hoping to get a global consensus “from Washington to Beijing.”
In a seven-page, ten-point paper circulated among diplomats involved in the reform talks, both governments noted that insufficient funding and legal powers hamper the WHO’s ability to prevent outbreaks. “Not only during the current pandemic, it has become clear that the WHO partly lacks the abilities to fulfil this mandate,” the document reads, as reported by Reuters.
One diplomat based in Geneva commented on UN member states’ contributions, noting that “The key point [in the document] is the mismatch between WHO mandate and financing. It’s very much pro-WHO, it should have more money and (they are) asking for an increase in assessed contributions.”
According to the document, a fifth of the agency’s budget derives from member states paying in. The rest is raised through “short-term, unpredictable and largely highly specified voluntary contributions,” a reference to the role of philanthropic funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The overall budget is roughly 4.2 billion euros biennially, which is more or less equivalent to the funding of a larger sub-regional hospital – insufficient to meet emergency needs in the midst of outbreaks, which erodes the agency’s independence.
China has been accused both during the current coronavirus pandemic and in previous epidemics of being slow to share key data or grant access to WHO teams, which hampers the ability of the agency’s experts to independently investigate and assess potential outbreaks as early as possible. The document also recommends creating a group of national experts to monitor crises while strengthening oversight of WHO operations in emergencies. In addition, the document suggests establishing a panel of experts to ensure proposed reforms have the proper follow-up.
Strengthening the WHO has taken on a greater urgency as Europe faces the second wave of coronavirus infections, with Spain, France, and Germany all reporting the highest numbers of coronavirus infections since exiting lockdown in June. Spain reported 43,173 new cases between the August 12 and August 21. France reported 25,825 new coronavirus infections in the same time period, while Germany reported 9,561.
Spain has introduced strict new measures, including a ban on outdoor smoking and drinking and expanding the mask mandate, which have in turn sparked anger, protests, and even conspiracy theories. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has rejected re-instituting a lockdown. France24 reported that, “Macron told Paris Match magazine that ‘local strategies‘ were preferable to another national lockdown which he said would cause considerable ‘collateral damage’.”
France and Germany Steer EU Policy
Proposals for the reform of the WHO demonstrate how France and Germany are working together to demonstrate international leadership within the EU and beyond; especially in the face of the collapse of earlier talks in August at the G7 level, when they clashed with the United States about strengthening the UN organisation. For its part, the United States wants to cut funding to the WHO, having announced its withdrawal from the agency next July. The Trump administration has also accused WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of being a puppet of China.
In terms of EU policy, France and Germany led the bloc in refusing to recognise the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. During an emergency summit last Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Charles Michel said the EU would impose sanctions on those involved in electoral fraud or the repression of pro-democracy protests. Germany currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency.
“There is no doubt that there were massive rule violations in the election,” Merkel told reporters after the emergency video summit. “The election was neither free nor fair. And that’s why the result of the election cannot be recognised. We stand with the peaceful demonstrators.”
EU commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU funds slated for Belarus would be rerouted to civil society instead of the government. Approximately 53 million euros in European Commission funds are earmarked for Belarus for the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
More alarmingly, Russia has already promised support to Lukashenko, who has run Belarus for 26 years. Recent elections returned votes 80 per cent in his favour, sparking widespread protests across the country as experts and citizens alike widely consider the election to have been rigged. Russia has accused the EU of “attempts of direct interference” in Belarus’ internal affairs. Russia is Belarus’ most important ally, despite Belarus bordering EU and NATO countries including Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, all of which have expressed their concern about the deteriorating situation.
Beyond European borders, Germany and France are also leading EU policy in Libya, aligning with Italy to level sanctions to halt the flow of arms to the war-torn country. The sanctions will be leveled against an agreed upon list of companies and individuals providing ships, aircraft and other logistics to move weapons in violation of a 2011 UN embargo.
“We are prepared to consider a possible use of sanctions if infringements against the land, sea and air embargo continue,” the countries’ three heads of government wrote in a joint statement released mid-June. The EU has also established a dedicated naval mission to enforce the UN embargo, dubbed Operation IRINI.
The ongoing civil war is especially relevant for the EU as smuggling groups promote illegal migration over the Mediterranean to Europe, a problem that has become increasingly difficult to bear for the comparatively poorer Southern European nations, who accuse the rest of Europe of insufficient solidarity to share the burden of caring for refugees who come to their shores.