EU lead­ers dis­cuss shut­ting of bor­ders

Montreal Gazette - - WORLD - GABRIELA BACZYNSKA AND FRANCESCO GUARASCIO

BRUS­SELS • Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Giuseppe Conte told his fel­low Euro­pean Union lead­ers on Tues­day that coro­n­avirus was caus­ing a “so­cio-eco­nomic tsunami” across Europe and that ded­i­cated bonds may be needed to cush­ion the hit, an Ital­ian gov­ern­ment source said.

EU lead­ers were de­bat­ing on a video­call on Tues­day whether to shut down Europe’s ex­ter­nal bor­ders and of­fer eco­nomic stim­u­lus as the con­ti­nent scram­bles to con­tain the quick spread of the dis­ease on its soil.

The death toll in Italy jumped above 2,000. France, with 175 deaths at press time, moved into lock­down mode. And Euro­pean banks warned of fall­ing in­comes as air­lines pleaded for gov­ern­ment aid.

The EU has scram­bled to find a co­her­ent re­sponse to the out­break, with coun­tries im­pos­ing their own bor­der checks in what is nor­mally a zone of con­trol-free travel, lim­it­ing ex­ports of med­i­cal equip­ment or fail­ing to share key in­for­ma­tion swiftly.

The ex­ec­u­tive Euro­pean Com­mis­sion warned mem­ber states that this was just the begin­ning of the cri­sis and Ger­many said it would run for “months rather than weeks,” diplo­mats said be­fore pre­par­ing for Tues­day’s call.

Three Baltic coun­tries — Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia — crit­i­cized Poland for block­ing their cit­i­zens in tran­sit from re­turn­ing home.

Pushed by French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, the Com­mis­sion pro­posed clos­ing Europe’s ex­ter­nal bor­ders to for­eign­ers.

“That was meant to con­vince Euro­pean coun­tries to drop in­ter­nal and uni­lat­eral bor­der moves. But it’s hard to see any­one do­ing it,” an EU diplo­mat said, adding the move was largely sym­bolic as the virus was al­ready within.

The lead­ers will also dis­cuss repa­tri­at­ing Euro­peans stranded abroad as air­lines cut flights. Com­mis­sion head Ur­sula von der Leyen said nearly 300 Aus­trian and other Euro­pean na­tion­als were flown back from Morocco to Vi­enna on Tues­day.

The bloc’s anti-trust chief pro­posed al­low­ing gov­ern­ments to of­fer grants or tax ad­van­tages of up to $780,000 to ail­ing com­pa­nies, though some EU coun­tries want Brus­sels to go fur­ther.

The EU is also seek­ing to pool re­sources to safe­guard med­i­cal sup­plies but the Com­mis­sion said its first call for more masks and gloves re­ceived no of­fers. It will now try to buy ven­ti­la­tors and test­ing kits.

“While the EU and its mem­ber states are in a fire ex­tinc­tion mode, it is equally im­por­tant to pre­pare for the days when the con­ta­gion will be con­tained as the cur­rent cri­sis will have very dire con­se­quences on Euro­pean economies,” said Claire Dheret of the Euro­pean Pol­icy Cen­tre think-tank.

“Pre­par­ing for the re­cov­ery in a co­or­di­nated way will be another test case for the EU’S sol­i­dar­ity.”

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