Europe grapples 'socio-economic tsunami' of long coronavirus crisis

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks walk in Malpensa airport near Milan
·2 min read

By Gabriela Baczynska and Crispian Balmer

BRUSSELS/ROME (Reuters) - Italy's prime minister on Tuesday declared coronavirus was causing a "socio-economic tsunami" as European leaders agreed to seal off external borders and unveil economic stimulus to cushion the fallout from the infection's rapid spread.

Two EU officials told Reuters a videocall of the 27 national leaders of the European Union agreed to close European borders to foreign travel. The plan was envisaged to cover 30 countries for 30 days. One of the officials said EU leaders would have another videocall on the coronavirus crisis next week.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said no EU country would be left untouched by the "tsunami" and called for special "coronavirus bonds" or a European guarantee fund to help countries finance urgent health and economic policies, an Italian government source said.

Rome has issued similar calls for joint EU funding during previous crises, usually running into opposition from the bloc's most powerful economy and paymaster, Germany.

France was going into lockdown on Tuesday to contain the spread of the disease and the death toll in Italy jumped above 2,000, as European banks warned of falling incomes and airlines pleaded for government aid.

The EU has scrambled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing their own border checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, limiting exports of medical equipment or failing to share crucial data swiftly.

The EU's executive European Commission warned member states that this was just the beginning of the crisis and Germany said it would run for "months rather than weeks", diplomats said after talks on Monday evening to prepare for Tuesday's call.

Three Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - criticised Poland for blocking their citizens in transit from returning home.

Pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron, the Commission proposed closing Europe's external borders to foreigners.

"That was meant to convince European countries to drop internal and unilateral border moves. But it's hard to see anyone doing it," an EU diplomat said, adding the move was largely symbolic as the virus was already within.

EU members continued fending for themselves, with Portugal and Spain on Tuesday notifying Brussels they were introducing controls on Europe's internal borders, bringing the total taking such measures to at least 12 countries.

Neither Slovakia nor Slovenia or Hungary have formally informed the EU about such moves, however, despite pursuing them, meaning the real number is higher.

(Aditional reporting by John Chalmers, Marine Strauss, Jan Strupczewski, Foo Yun Chee, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich/William Maclean)