Global Europe Brief: To Ease or Not To Ease?

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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VIRUS UPDATE

As China has lifted its restrictive lockdown measures after 77 days, life is slowly returning to the streets of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Across Europe, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is still infecting and killing large numbers of people and there is no sign yet that the peak of the region’s outbreak has been reached, a risk report by the EU’s disease monitoring agency, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), said this week.

Despite early evidence from Italy and Austria that the numbers of cases and deaths are declining, “there is currently no indication that the peak of the epidemic has been reached”, the assessment said.

But while the coronavirus lockdowns have become a common picture across Europe, some European countries are already eying an easing of measures.

Both Austria and Denmark have said they will start phasing out restrictions from next week, while keeping social-distancing rules and frequent hand washing instructions in place.

And while Sweden had adopted a looser approach on restrictions from the start, drawing bewildered reactions across Europe, Norway announced it will start to relax measures, with schools and universities set to start re-opening from 27 April.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his country, one of the worst-hit in Europe, must stick with its rigid lockdown to try to curb the epidemic, rejecting calls from businesses to reopen factories.

Experts, however, have been warning against relaxing measures too soon: “It is still too early to suddenly lift all community and physical distancing measures…even though these stringent measures may be quite disruptive to society on an economic and social level,” ECDC warned.

The European Commission, meanwhile, proposed to member states to keep non-essential travel across the EU’s common border restricted until 15 May at least. “We shouldn’t yet let the door open whilst we’re securing our house,” Migration Commissioner Margaritis Schinas said.

Make sure you stay up-to-date with coronavirus measures and actions across Europe’s capitals with EURACTIV’s comprehensive overview, regularly updated with the help of our pan-European network of reporters and media partners.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK | Bernie Sanders suspends 2020 presidential elections campaign. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

EU IN THE WORLD

CAMPS QUARANTINED. Greek authorities have largely sealed off Camp Moria on the island of Lesbos, as well as the Malakasa camp, just north of Athens, to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, applying massive restrictions to the camp’s 18,000-odd inhabitants. But aid organisations have almost completely suspended their work and are raising the alarm about the conditions in the camp.

CORONA-AID. The EU has unveiled a support package worth €15.6 billion for African and other partner countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but conceded that it includes no new money. The continent is bracing for a potential surge in the pandemic, which is set to result in a large economic hit, and the EU’s plans are likely to leave developing countries distinctly underwhelmed, reports EURACTIV’s Benjamin Fox.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused by coronavirus could push more than half a billion people into poverty unless “urgent and dramatic action is taken”.

INSTEX TRADEIran welcomed the launch of a European barter system to bypass US sanctions as a “good omen” but said it was insufficient in light of the Europeans’ commitments. Earlier this month, the EU’s INSTEX mechanism facilitated its first transaction with the pandemic-hit country, providing medical goods.

LIBYA DIPLOMACY. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, has begun searching for a new envoy to Libya, diplomatic sources said, after the United States refused to endorse the previous candidate. In February, Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčak appeared tipped to become the next Sahara envoy, but the EU snagged him at the last minute for another job.

DEFENCE CORNER

CONFLICT ZONES. In countries stricken by conflict, where health systems have already collapsed, “the worst is yet to come” as the coronavirus continues to spread, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned, reiterating his call for a global ceasefire to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “a substantial number of parties to conflicts” have expressed their agreement to a cessation of hostilities, “in some conflicts, fighting has not stopped, it has gotten worse.”

MEDICAL AID RESPONSE. “We have to make sure that the health crisis does not become a security crisis,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said as NATO foreign ministers tasked US Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Tod Wolters, with coordinating the air transport of medical equipment and personnel to fight the “invisible enemy” of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 vs. CSDP. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began to spread from Asia in late 2019, has hit the EU hard. Although previously prepared documents such as the 2016 EU Global Strategy have highlighted that preventing, detecting and responding to global pandemics is an EU priority, the Union—like most of the world—was caught off guard, writes Niklas Novaky in an op-ed for EURACTIV.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

EXPORT RESTRICTIONS. Several Western Balkan foreign ministers, at the initiative of North Macedonian’s Nikola Dimitrov, have sent a letter to European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi and EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell, with a request to exclude the region from the EU Regulation under which certain medical products for personal protection were placed under the regime of export restrictions or special export licenses.
“Given that everywhere on the front line with the Coronavirus are healthcare professionals, we must all ensure that they have the medical equipment for personal protection at all times and in sufficient quantities,” the joint statement urged. “That is why we, the partners from the region, have united and urgently proposed to the European Commission to revise of the current regulation to provide for the exemption from the need for special export permits for our region.”

EURASIA DIGEST

FIGHTING CRIME. The EU and the UN’s Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) launched a programme to help Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – claw back assets linked to organised crime and money laundering.

RACISM TRIGGER. There has been a spike in recorded cases of racist abuse against people perceived to be of Chinese or Asian descent in the EU amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) said in a report. It, however, also highlights other threats to fundamental rights associated with areas ranging from social life, education, and work to freedom of movement, asylum and migration, with particular risks to the most vulnerable in society, writes EURACTIV’s Samuel Stolton.

EDUCATION FIRST. Kazakhstan, the UN, and the EU are working together on a programme to educate Afghan women. The initiative is expected to help create new opportunities for the women and their communities back in Afghanistan.

US ELECTION WATCH

It’s 208 days until the US Presidential Elections and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders dropped a bombshell by suddenly ending his presidential campaign, acknowledging in a video address to supporters that “the path toward victory is virtually impossible.”

What to watch and why it matters: With that, the fight for the presidency is on between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. Biden will need to win the support of moderates and swing voters in key battleground states to beat Trump in November.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT DAYS…

The regular 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 moved exclusively online.
  • NATO defence ministers meeting
    | Wednesday, 15 April 2020 | videoconference

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