Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

EU steps up coronavirus fight in first online summit

  • The Parlamentarium is one of the parliament's venues that shut its doors on Tuesday (Photo: European Parliament)

EU leaders on Tuesday (10 March) agreed to step up common action in Europe's fight against the spread of the coronavirus, after on Monday Italy became the first EU country to go into lockdown to stop the virus from spreading.

The EU-27 leaders held a teleconference on Tuesday evening focusing on containing the spread of the virus and mitigating the economic fallout.

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After the meeting, EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced a €25bn coronavirus investment fund for the health care sector, labour market and SMEs with €7.5bn to be released from the current EU budget, and the rest to be leveraged later.

"We will use all of our means at our disposal to make sure that our economy can weather this storm," von der Leyen said.

The commission will draw up guidelines by the end of the week on the use of state aid spending and flexibility in EU fiscal rules to help countries counter the economic impact of the outbreak.

The commission will hold daily phone conference with EU countries' health and internal affairs ministers. It will also assemble a group of epidemiologists and virologists to give advice.

Commission officials will also asses the availability of protective equipment and respiratory devices, and their production.

EU council president Charles Michel, in a reference to France and Germany which had banned most of the export of protective equipment, said that the EU's internal market needs to function properly.

He added that "any unjustified obstacles" need to be avoided, particularly when it comes to masks and respirators.

"The spread of the virus takes place and will take place. The most important part right now is to slow down the spread to prolong the time before infection takes place," von der Leyen said.

She said the commission had already released €140m for research on vaccines and treatment.

Airport slots

Commission president Urusla von der Leyen on Tuesday also announced that the executive will roll out temporary legislation on airport slots, so that airlines will not have to fly almost empty planes in order to maintain their rights to fly at airports.

She said traffic is expected to decline further, and that aviation is only one of the sectors hit by coronavirus. The EU is estimated to have lost €1bn in tourism per month since January.

Industry commissioner Thierry Breton held a discussion with manufacturers of protective equipment, to discuss the state of supply.

EU officials have been urging France, Germany and the Czech Republic to lift national controls on the export of protective medical gear, which was introduced to avoid shortages at home.

"This is a crucial time for European cooperation and solidarity and for people to see it in action," commission vice-president Margarethe Vestager said on Tuesday.

"Fragmentation of efforts makes us very vulnerable, we need to share resources, information, expertise, equipment, information on testing, and treatment-equipment protocols," she added.

Vestager also said the commission is ready to consider compensation measures for companies hit by the coronavirus outbreak - and said EU state aid rules leave "ample scope" for member states to help out troubled firms.

"Better to take those bold measures now, to protect as many people as possible from the virus," commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the commission will support Italy with "any means and measures."

Strasbourg cancelled

A meeting of EU trade ministers, planned for Thursday in Brussels, has meanwhile been cancelled due to the spread of the virus.

A meeting of home affairs ministers scheduled for Friday, however, is expected to go ahead given the tense migration situation on the Greece-Turkey border. A meeting of justice ministers on the same day has been cancelled.

The European Parliament has also stepped up measures to combat the virus.

European parliament president David Sassoli entered a two-week self-quarantine after having spent the weekend in his native Italy.

The parliament cancelled all of its activities for next week and the second week of April.

It has once again cancelled its plenary in Strasbourg, and will hold it in the beginning of April in Brussels instead.

Cancelling the Strasbourg plenary has been a sensitive political issue: most MEPs want to do away with the costly monthly travelling, but the EU treaty, at the insistence of host France, requires a dozen plenaries to be held in the French city.

The parliament has also temporarily shut the doors of two of its Brussels-based museums, the House of European History and the Parlamentarium.

In the meantime, Belgium's federal government has recommended cancelling all indoor events expecting more than a 1,000-strong crowd - but the decision to cancel lies with mayors.

Schools will remain open, but teleworking is encouraged.

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