EU vows united response as virus hits its political heart

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union (EU) leaders vowed on Tuesday to stand united in combatting the spread of the coronavirus ravaging member country Italy, and agreed to draft a plan to address any medical shortages and set up a fund to help overburdened health care systems.

The pledges came at a rare video conference among national heads of state and government as COVID-19, which is now present in all 27 EU member countries, took its toll on European politics, forcing meetings to be cancelled, a parliamentary session to be cut short, and even sending some senior officials home to work.

“Our citizens health is the first priority,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters in Brussels after hosting the summit before two screens in a small room at EU headquarters, in stark contrast to a large oval table where the leaders usually sit side by side. “We have decided to act. We have decided to be fast, and to be strong, and to work together.”

The leaders agreed that the bloc’s health and interior ministers would talk daily to ensure that any border or quarantine measures were coordinated with their neighbours. The EU’s executive commission will take a Europe-wide inventory of all medical equipment, particularly masks and respirators, and buy more if needed.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the launch of a “corona response investment fund” seeded with EUR7.5 billion that she said would reap billions more. It’s aimed at propping up health care structures, small businesses suffering from the impact of the virus and labour markets where jobs might be hit.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s latest figures, there have been 14,890 confirmed cases of the virus across Europe, including 532 deaths. The EU medicines agency said it’s received no reports of medicine shortages so far, but can’t rule out such problems in the future.

The European Commission said all 27 member states now have patients confirmed with the fast-spreading illness.

European Council President Charles Michel during a video conference call with EU leaders at the European Council building in Brussels. PHOTO: AP