EU leaders discuss shutting of borders
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.”