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EU battles to forge common front as coronavirus eats at unity

The virus case count in Europe has climbed to more than 50,000.


Police officers control vehicle traffic in Germany (Stefan Sauer/dpa via AP)

Police officers control vehicle traffic in Germany (Stefan Sauer/dpa via AP)

Police officers control vehicle traffic in Germany (Stefan Sauer/dpa via AP)

EU leaders are set to hold their second summit in two weeks in a fresh attempt to forge a joint response to the coronavirus pandemic as Europe takes over from China as the frontline in the fight against the disease.

The virus case count in Europe has climbed to more than 50,000 and more than 2,000 people have died. The inexorable spread of the disease has hit markets and sown public fear, but nervous governments have introduced quick-fix measures – partial border closures or quarantine – with little consultation.

After Italy, ground zero in Europe’s battle with Covid-19, Spain and now France have imposed lockdowns, confining citizens to their homes except for urgent business such as buying food or heading to any hospital that might still have the capacity to treat them.

Seven countries have informed the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, that they have reintroduced ID checks inside Europe’s passport-free Schengen Area. Among them are Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, which all took unilateral action to halt the influx of migrants in 2015.

Indeed, it is a similar challenge that leaders are grappling with as they confront the coronavirus — how to ensure that the fraying solidarity among partners in the same European club does not completely unravel as the crisis deepens.

Asked on Monday whether Europe can ever return to real ID-check free travel after this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “I hope so. But it’s been shown that co-ordination didn’t work well everywhere the way one would have hoped.”

The main problem confronting the leaders, as they meet in a virtual online video-conference from their offices in the bloc’s 27 capitals, is to halt the arrival of more virus cases, co-ordinate any border closures and guarantee that vital medical equipment and food can reach those in need.

They are expected to endorse a 30-day travel ban on people wanting to come to Europe for tourism or non-essential business. Long-term EU residents, diplomats and members of European families would be exempt. Health care and transport workers could escape the ban too.

Coronavirus cases in Europe
(PA Graphics)

Separately, so-called “green lanes” would be set up at the internal borders of the Schengen countries, allowing fast-track access for trucks ferrying essential supplies to defy the traffic jams that have begun forming at some crossing points.

The aim, according to EU Council president Charles Michel, who will chair the summit, is “to reduce unnecessary movement but at the same time to ensure the movement of merchandise, of goods, so that we can guarantee as much as possible the integrity of the single market, guarantee the deliveries that are needed”.

The proposals are relatively modest, but Europe’s powers in this crisis are limited. While it may be a Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc remains an accumulation of 27 individual countries, some with populist and far-right governments that reject orders from Brussels.

“In recent days, European countries failed to co-ordinate their approach,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Saturday as he announced the closure of retail businesses in his country. “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice.”

When President Emmanuel Macron declares that “we are at war” with an invisible enemy, every French citizen understands. The democratic legitimacy conferred on him at the polls gives Mr Macron the freedom to mobilise resources, money and quick policy fixes with public backing.