17th Apr 2021

Von der Leyen warns 'end selfishness' in virus crisis

  • Ursula von der Leyen told EU countries it 'makes no sense' to shut borders in a borderless crisis (Photo: European Parliament)

EU countries need an "all for one" spirit instead of an "only for me" response to be successful in managing the coronavirus crisis, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday (26 March).

The EU executive president spoke only a few hours before EU leaders were due to discuss ways to mitigate the economic shocks of the crisis, amid deep division on whether to give a robust financial response immediately.

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"No member state can handle this alone, only by helping each other we can help ourselves," the German commission chief said at a special plenary of the European Parliament.

Her native country, along with France, the Czech Republic, and Romania, were criticised in the early days of the crisis for an export ban on critical medical gear when Italy was facing devastating shortages.

"When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an 'all for one' spirit too many initially gave an 'only for me' response," von der Leyen said.

"When Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair weather union, too many initially refused to share their umbrella," she said.

Von der Leyen also criticised countries that have been quick to shut their borders at the onset of the crisis.

"A successful European response can only be coordinated if our internal market and our Schengen area work the way it should. A crisis without borders cannot be resolved by putting barriers between us," said von der Leyen.

"And yet, this is exactly the first reflex that many European countries had," she said, adding: "This simply makes no sense".

She warned that "there is not one single member state that can meet its own needs when it comes to vital medical supplies and equipment."

"Free movement of goods and services is strongest and, frankly, our only asset to ensure supplies can go where the needed most," she added.

In a direct criticism for countries that introduced export bans, von der Leyen said: "it makes no sense that some countries unilaterally decided to stop exports to the internal market".

The commission has recently issued border control guidelines to make sure the flow of goods, and some people continue throughout Europe.

It also urged countries to set up fast-track 'Green Lanes' at borders where lorries would have to wait no longer than 15 minutes.

'People will remember'

Following the slow response from EU countries, Italy has turned to China for help with masks, and Chinese authorities have seized the communications opportunity.

Russia and pro-Kremlin propaganda sites have also exploited the slow and fragmented European response.

Since then, France and Germany have lifted restrictions and has sent millions of masks and other protective equipment to Italy. German hospitals on Tuesday have also taken in coronavirus patients from Italy.

The commission launched joint procurements for protective gear and other medical devices key to fighting coronavirus, and decided to set up a stockpile of crucial medical equipment which it will finance almost completely.

The commission also loosened up state aid and fiscal rules to help member states offset the damage to the economy, and redirected EU budget money to help countries.

MEPs on Thursday approved those measures in a remote vote.

But according to a poll by Monitor Italia, 88 percent of Italians believed the EU had not done enough to help their country.

Those who believe EU membership is a disadvantage to Italy has risen to 67 percent from 47 percent in November, according to Reuters.

Von der Leyen, in her message before the EU leaders's online-only meeting on Thursday, warned that people "will remember who was there for them and who was not and will remember those that acted and those who did not."

While Italy, Spain, France are calling for massive EU economic help, fiscally more conservative countries in the north are reluctant to commit to any 'big bazooka' solution now.

"We are at a turning point," von der Leyen said.

The commission chief said the decisions the EU takes today will determine "if we simply let this virus divide us between wealthy and poor, or we are going to end up with a stronger continent, an important global player, perhaps we will become closer as communities, and people will respect democracy even more".

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