Tensions arise as EU leaders mull huge virus recovery plan

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union (EU) leaders are preparing for a new virtual summit to take stock of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the lives and livelihoods of the bloc’s citizens and to thrash out a more robust plan to revive their ravaged economies.

As some Europeans take their first tentative steps out of confinement to return to work or school, and as businesses on the continent cautiously open their doors, the leaders will endorse urgent spending measures and debate a massive recovery plan they hope to introduce in coming weeks.

Around one million people in Europe and Britain have now tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 100,000 of them have died — over half of the world’s death toll — according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Experts believe those official figures vastly understate the true toll of the pandemic, due in part to limited testing and difficulties in counting the dead during a crisis.

Today’s EU summit, the fourth video conference between the 27 EU leaders since the outbreak struck northern Italy two months ago, comes at an extremely delicate time.

Trust between them has eroded, with hard-hit Italy and Spain lacking confidence that relatively wealthier northern EU partners like Austria, the Netherlands or Germany — who have suffered less in the pandemic — are willing to take swift, sweeping measures backed by real economic firepower.

“This pandemic touches all of us in every member state and in every household. It knows no boundaries and calls for even more coordination and unity. It is my conviction that we must show even greater determination in overcoming our differences,” European Council President Charles Michel said in his summit invitation letter.

Still, it’s not as if Europe has been sitting on its hands. Combined, the EU’s institutions and nations have mobilised around EUR3.3 trillion (USD3.6 trillion) to help over-burdened health services, suffering small businesses, embattled airlines and the newly jobless.

The leaders are expected to endorse a package worth EUR540 billion (USD587 billion) that would help pay lost wages, keep companies afloat and fund health care systems.