Medical workers put on protective gear at the new level 3 intensive care unit, treating Covid-19 patients, at the Casal Palocco hospital near Rome, on April 8, 2020. Picture: AFP/ALBERTO PIZZOLI
Medical workers put on protective gear at the new level 3 intensive care unit, treating Covid-19 patients, at the Casal Palocco hospital near Rome, on April 8, 2020. Picture: AFP/ALBERTO PIZZOLI

Brussels — A blistering row erupted on Wednesday after the head of the EU’s top science funding agency resigned and attacked the bloc’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Mauro Ferrari quit as president of the European Research Council (ERC) after just three months, telling the Financial Times he was “extremely disappointed” by the EU’s response to the pandemic, which has hit Italy and Spain particularly hard.

The ERC hit back with a lengthy statement accusing Ferrari of being “economical with the truth” and lambasting him for not showing proper commitment to the job.

The row is the latest example of in-house bickering to mar EU efforts to manage a co-ordinated, Europe-wide response to the crisis, which has killed thousands and crippled the continent’s economy.

In a statement to the FT, Ferrari said he had joined the ERC as a “fervent supporter” of the EU, but his battles with its bureaucratic approach to Covid-19 has changed his mind. He complained that the strategy he had proposed to fight the virus was unanimously rejected by the ERC’s scientific council because it went against the agency’s usual way of working.

In response, the scientific council said its 19 members had already voted to demand that Ferrari quit nearly two weeks ago in a unanimous vote of no confidence.

They accused him of approaching the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive, with ideas behind their back, and of failing even to grasp the purpose of the organisation he led.

“Since his appointment, Prof Ferrari displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the US,” the statement said.

Responding to Ferrari’s complaints about the approach to the coronavirus, the council said it rejected his initiative because it lies outside its remit and similar work was already underway through “the appropriate channels”.

“We regret Prof Ferrari’s statement [to the FT], which, at best, is economical with the truth,” the statement said.

The ERC, set up in 2007, is the first Europe-wide funding agency for cutting-edge research, with a budget of more than €2bn in 2019. 

A spokesperson for the commission, which oversees the ERC, confirmed that Ferrari had resigned with immediate effect on Tuesday. “The commission regrets the resignation of Prof Ferrari at this early stage in his mandate, and at these times of unprecedented crisis in which the role of EU research is key,” the spokesperson said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than 750,000 people in Europe, killing nearly 60,000, yet the EU has struggled to organise a co-ordinated response, with national governments pursuing their own interests.

A bid to craft a financial rescue package for hard-hit countries collapsed in acrimony on Wednesday as the Netherlands blocked a deal over bailout conditions.

AFP