Cracks show as EU at odds over Covid-19 economic response
As EU leaders fail to meet a consensus, southern European countries point a finger at the north, and a ‘cowardly Europe’
Rome — The failure of EU leaders to come up with a joint economic response to the coronavirus crisis unleashed widespread criticism in Italy on Friday, with newspapers slamming Europe’s foot dragging.
On Thursday, Germany and other northern European countries rejected the plea of nine countries, including hardest-hit Italy, for pooled borrowing through “corona bonds” to help cushion the economic blow of the pandemic.
“Ugly Europe,” thundered the headline of La Repubblica newspaper. The anti-establishment Il Fatto Quotidiano was even blunter, screaming: “Conte’s screw you to a dead Europe.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had asked during a six-hour video conference with other EU leaders for new financial instruments “truly adapted to a war”. But his request was rebuffed, and instead a summit declaration late on Thursday gave eurozone finance ministers two weeks to propose options.
Conte, the Corriere della Sera daily wrote, had asked his European colleagues for two things: “unity and swift action” but received neither. “If the EU is not in agreement, the European project is over,” it said.
Italian foreign minister Luigi DiMaio voiced his support for the prime minister. “Conte did well. If [European countries] want to use old financial instruments, we will do it alone,” DiMaio told Rai 1 television.
Rome and Madrid had held out for a stronger response from their EU partners, but in the end the summit declaration said upcoming proposals would take into account “the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 shock affecting all our countries”.
“Our response will be stepped up, as necessary, with further action in an inclusive way, in light of developments, to deliver a comprehensive response,” the statement said.
The caution exhibited by Europe’s northern countries underscores their long-standing reluctance to allow southern countries with weaker economies and higher debt to push through demands for pooled public debt within the eurozone.
France, Spain and Italy have long called for some kind of eurobond that would, in effect, allow joint borrowing by the 19 members of the euro currency, but sceptics view it as a tool by some eurozone members to avoid higher borrowing rates.
The Italian former head of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani, slammed those countries which blocked stronger measures.
“A cowardly Europe, like the one we saw yesterday, will be overwhelmed by the coronavirus,” Tajani wrote on Twitter. “As we die and the economy plummets, decisions are postponed for two weeks. The masochistic selfishness of the inflexible is short-sighted and dangerous for all.”
The president of Italy’s Veneto region, which, like its neighbour Lombardy, has been hard hit by the virus, similarly criticised the EU.
“Europe is once again proving its absence. There is no strategy,” Luca Zaia told Rete4 television. “It’s outrageous that someone would think it was just an Italian problem.”