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6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

EU bluntly criticises US handling of pandemic

  • 'This is not a good way of fighting the pandemic', EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has attacked US handling of the pandemic, saying it was putting lives at risk.

"American leadership has been weak. They were not at all prepared to face the problem and now they are seeing the consequences," Borrell told MEPs in Brussels by videoconference on Monday (20 April).

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"Blaming China is not the solution," Borrell added, after US president Donald Trump spoke of "Chinese flu" and alleged cover-ups.

Trump's "personal attacks" on the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) as being "a kind of Chinese agent", was also wrong, Borrell said.

"This is not the way to deal with problems which big international institutions [such as the WHO] may have and this is not the time to do it ... This is not a good way of fighting the pandemic," the EU's top diplomat said.

The US is the new global epicentre of coronavirus, with almost 800,000 confirmed infections amid wider accusations of poor leadership by Trump.

Meanwhile, US economic sanctions on Iran and Venezuela were making matters worse by blocking humanitarian supplies for people in "unbearable" conditions, Borrell added.

There were meant to be derogations.

But "not even that is clear. Not even that. And when I speak with [US secretary of state] Mike Pompeo he says: 'Yes. Humanitarian aid can go through'. But people don't believe him. The most important financial institutions don't want to take part in this trade," Borrell said.

He spoke ahead of a virtual EU foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday.

The ministers will discuss how the pandemic is shaping world affairs. They will also zoom in on conflicts in Libya and Ukraine and discuss Turkey relations.

Borrell repeated worries the virus could rebound to Europe from Africa if it spread there.

"We need them to succeed because otherwise, we will never be safe. Africa has to succeed and we will not be safe until everyone is safe," he said.

Europe had 40 more doctors per capita than the African average, he noted, while food chain disruptions there could see "more people dying of hunger than from disease".

Meanwhile, the EU would have to reduce dependence on foreign supplies of medical essentials, Borrell said.

"Europe does not make one pill of paracetamol," he said, referring to an anti-fever drug.

Some 80 percent of its antibiotics were made in China and 70 percent of protective equipment was made overseas, Borrell said, adding: "This is going to change".

With transatlantic bonds fraying, China and Russia had stepped up their propaganda campaigns to compete for influence on the world stage, Borrell said.

"We are engaged in a battle of narratives about which is the best political system ... this will shape the geopolitical landscape after the crisis," he said.

But Europe was failing to tell its story, Borrell noted.

"With all my heart, it almost made me cry to see the European flag being burned in Italy," he told MEPs, referring to Italian protests in March against lack of EU solidarity.

EU institutions had helped to repatriate 500,000 Europeans who had been stranded overseas, but no one knew about it, Borrell said.

Chinese medical aid to Serbia, an EU enlargement candidate, prompted billboards in Belgrade "thanking brother Xi, who was the only one to help us", Borrell said - referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping.

But "I never saw a billboard saying thank you to the European Union," Borrell added, after the EU gave Serbia €3.6bn in recent times.

Conflicts flaring

And conflicts in the EU neighbourhood were deepening as diplomacy remained in lockdown, Borrell warned.

"None of the old problems have gone away. In fact, they're getting worse," he said. "Fighting in Libya has started again, more fiercely than ever," he noted.

Hundreds of explosions and small arms ceasefire violations, resulting in a civilian death, also rang out across the contact line with Russian forces in east Ukraine last weekend, according to international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The coronavirus pandemic, which had put half of humanity under lockdown, was a first in history.

But "who knows what's going to happen [afterward]?," Borrell said on Monday.

"In the past, 100 years ago, when we had the so-called Spanish flu, when 50m people died, the world was not a better place afterward. On the contrary, the world went to war," he said, referring to WW2.

"We have to de-escalate geopolitical tensions," he said.

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