Global Europe Brief: A continent quarantined

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU in the global perspective from our foreign affairs news team: Georgi Gotev and Alexandra Brzozowski.

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‘WHATEVER IT TAKES’

It’s official: Europe’s coronavirus deaths have exceeded Asia’s toll this week. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that Europe is now the “epicentre” for the global COVID-19 pandemic – and warned it is impossible to know when the outbreak will peak.

Maria Van Kerkhove, who heads the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, warned it is “impossible for us to say when this will peak globally.” A few days after their comments, governments across the world have imposed draconian measures to try to slow the pace of infections and deaths, confining people to their homes, closing shops, restaurants and schools to practice social-distancing and therefore dramatically changing everyday life as we know it.

In Europe, with more than 85,490 confirmed cases and 4,070 deaths as of Thursday (19 March), millions of people are on strict lockdown.

Political leaders “underestimated” the magnitude of the danger, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted as EU leaders sealed off external Schengen borders as of Wednesday (18 March) for at least 30 days in an attempt to put the brakes on the ferocious spread of the pandemic.

However, the bloc continues struggling to come up with a unified response to the coronavirus outbreak as many European countries adopted their own unilateral measures to address the health crisis.

To stay up-to-date on everything to do with the coronavirus across Europe’s capitals, follow EURACTIV’s comprehensive overview, which is regularly updated with the help of our pan-European network reporters and media partners.

Eurogroup’s chief Mario Centeno, and many other EU leaders after him, pledged to do “whatever it takes” to fight coronavirus and protect Europe’s economy from another recession. Euro area countries have mobilised around 1% of their GDP (€120 billion) to fight against the economic fallout but continue to disagree over deploying a joint fiscal stimulus.

While it is still too early to say whether this will bear fruit after the crisis is over, citizens should rightly ask for “whatever it takes” to give the EU the competence over health policy, which currently lies in the hands of national governments, writes EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopolous.

Beyond Europe, world powers were on a war footing against the pandemic despite a sign of hope from China, where zero new domestic cases were reported for the first time this week.
So far, one thing has proven true: Nations’ relations with and perceptions of each other will shift as a consequence of how this crisis has been and will be handled, mostly due to things that haven’t happenedhow aid was provided and by whom.

But let’s just imagine that the coronavirus pandemic is over and that the world has learned the lessons. Georgi Gotev gives you the optimists’ take on the current situation.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK | Empty shelves on supermarkets as people stockpile due to the fear of the new coronavirus, in Milan, Italy, 23 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/GIULIA COSTETTI]

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

”We will do ‘whatever it takes’ and more, to restore confidence and support a rapid recovery.”

– Eurogroup chief Mario Centeno

EU IN THE WORLD

BORDER GAMES. Only a few weeks ago, Ankara opened its land borders with Greece, Europe’s external border, and sent thousands of refugees and migrants to Europe, invoking Russia’s attacks against the Turkish army in Syria. Now, the Turkish government has decided to close its rail and land border with Greece and Bulgaria amid fears over the coronavirus spread, writes EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

BREXIT DELAYED. UK and EU officials cancelled the second round of post-Brexit trade talks planned for this week due to the coronavirus crisis. With both the UK and EU imposing a 30-day travel ban and putting their citizens on lockdown, it is difficult to see how face-to-face talks will be able to take place any time soon. In the meantime, Britain and the EU have exchanged draft legal texts containing their proposals for how relations between the two sides should work after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

SYRIA SITUATION. A four-party video conference that involved French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed the migrant crisis and the situation in Syria’s rebel enclave of Idlib. The talks came after Turkey decided last month to re-open its border for refugees trying to reach Europe.

TOURISM IMPACT. Europe’s tourism industry is bracing itself for an economic impact that could potentially push several countries into recession, as a result of the ongoing coronavirus crisis on the continent. Without a steady stream of visitors from outside the bloc, the European tourism industry alone is said to be facing an estimated financial loss of roughly €1 billion per month, European Commissioner for Internal Markets Thierry Breton announced.

GLOBAL GOVERNANCE. As political parties have become an important interface between governments and the people around the world, and global challenges are becoming increasingly transnational, party structures at the European level could contribute to stronger global governance, European and global stakeholders believe.

DEFENCE CORNER

GOING VIRTUAL. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for the first time held a virtual press conference to present the Alliance’s annual report. Main points will be progress in defence spending of European members, Turkey and new declared threats. One matter that might soften Donald Trump’s tirade against the continent: Europe is moving closer to NATO’s 2% spending goal, with European member countries and Canada increasing to 1.57% GDP on average in 2019 from 1.52% in 2018, the alliance said in its annual report.
Check EURACTIV later today for a more in-depth analysis.

In the meantime, Stoltenberg told reporters that the coronavirus outbreak is a “time when our resilience is put to the test and tested to the limit”. “This is an unprecedented crisis, in the past, we have overcome crises and together we will overcome the coronavirus crisis,” he added. Earlier this week, NATO’s Defender Europe exercises were partially cancelled, with US Army Europe command making changes in terms of size and scope.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

DECISION TIME. After the French ‘non’ in October and with the Western Balkan summit scheduled for May (tbc), the time for enlargement decisions is running out. A 26-27 March EU summit, which originally was meant to continue the discussion whether to start EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, will be held by videoconference. The agenda, however, is still unclear.
According to first draft conclusions, both Skopje and Tirana are meant to get the green light next week to open EU accession talks, with more conditionality for Albania, sources said. The first versions of the text mentioned a potential June date for the European Commission’s proposal of a negotiation framework for both countries. However, this has been later removed, sources said, and it is unclear if it might still find its way into the document as negotiations continue throughout Thursday.

UKRAINE. If the Foreign Affairs Council goes ahead on 23 March, it will be turned into a video conference, too. The scheduled debate on Ukraine, however, has been moved to the agenda of the next meeting in April, as the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell has not been able to visit Kyiv due to the coronavirus outbreak.

ELECTION PRESSURE. North Macedonia’s ex-premier Zoran Zaev urged the country to postpone a snap poll scheduled for mid-April, seen as crucial for the future political direction of the Balkan country, due to the coronavirus. The snap poll was called after Zaev failed to get a greenlight from the EU to start Skopje’s membership talks last October.

SERBIA TURNS TO CHINA. After announcing a state of emergency, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić slammed the EU for restricting exports of medical equipment and appealed for help from his “friend and brother”, Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Serbia now turns its eyes to China,” Vučić said. Chinese Ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, was quick to inform the Serbian President that Beijing had approved a donation and decided to send experts to help Serbia fight the coronavirus pandemic. EURACTIV Serbia has the story.

EURASIA DIGEST

POST-2020 PRIORITIES. The European Commission published its proposed five priorities for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy post-2020 this week, with the new objectives focusing on economy and trade, boosting judicial reforms, the environment and digitalisation, as well as tackling corruption and strengthening civil society and media. The proposal found current objectives of the EU’s policy for engagement are “producing tangible results” in the areas of economy, connectivity and society, but fell short in strengthening governance and rule of law, writes EURACTIV’s Vlagyiszlav Makszimov.

US ELECTION WATCH

It’s 229 days until the US Presidential election and the coronavirus outbreak is taking its toll on the Democratic primaries which have been pushed back, and none are scheduled for the next couple of weeks.

What to watch and why it matters: After Bernie Sanders lost three primaries by double digits on Tuesday (18 March), the watchword for him was “assessing” as he contemplates whether to stay in as victory over Joe Biden already seems out of reach. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is struggling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak in the country, as his erratic initial response to the health crisis has caused many American voters to lose their sense of invincibility – something that could severely impact their electoral decision in November.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT DAYS…

The institutional cycle has temporarily ground to a halt.
But we’ll continue to keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news,
as operations start to move exclusively online.
  • EU foreign minister’s meeting (teleconference – tbc)
    | Monday, 23 March 2020 | Brussels, Belgium
    Due to rapidly evolving circumstances, further details about the agenda of the Council meeting are under discussion and will be communicated shortly.
  • European Council (teleconference)
    | Thu-Fri, 26-27 March 2020 | Brussels, Belgium
    EU leaders were meant to have a heavy agenda, from the question whether to start EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, how to save Europe’s economy and digital issues (5G and Artificial Intelligence), to “a broad strategic discussion” about relations with China and an unlikely meeting with the Sahel G5 leaders over regional security. As the summit was officially postponed, they will have a coronavirus response call.

 

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