Successive crises in the European Union have led critics to identify a pervasive tendency to emergency politics, where democratic deliberation gives way to policy decisions forced through by executive authority. By contrast, in this article it is argued that crises may stimulate deliberation and compromise, even when preceded by open conflict and an evident collective action failure. Drawing on a new dataset of 1759 policy-related actions covering the EU and its member states’ responses to COVID-19 between March and July 2020, the timing, sequencing and origins of policy claims and steps are traced. Both urgent epidemiological responses are found, where emergency measures were in evidence; and responses to anticipated economic challenges that had to overcome disagreement concerning necessary institutional reforms. The findings depict a multifaceted crisis response. The European Commission acted swiftly but also bought time for member state governments to deliberate. This casts doubt on the many-crises-one-script account of EU emergency politics.