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EU apologises to Italy for lack of support in coronavirus crisis

EU apologises to Italy for lack of support in coronavirus crisis The apology to Italy was offered by the president of the European Commis...

EU apologises to Italy for lack of support in coronavirus crisis
The apology to Italy was offered by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen CREDIT: AFP

The president of the European Commission has apologised to Italy for the EU’s failure to support the country during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis.

No other EU country has suffered as greatly as Italy from the pandemic, with more than 21,000 dead and 105,000 people still infected.

To the anger of Italy’s politicians, other EU member states were slow to offer help in the first weeks of the contagion.

In a significant admission, Ursula von der Leyen tried to heal those wounds in the European Parliament.

“It is true that no one was really ready for this. It is also true that too many were not there on time when Italy a needed a helping hand at the very beginning.

“And yes, for that, it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.”

In early March, Rome asked its fellow member states for supplies of protective equipment but after a week, only Croatia offered help.

Countries such as China, Russia and Cuba came to Italy’s aid, much to the EU’s embarrassment.

Mrs von der Leyen said that EU countries were now stepping up to help Italy and other member states. She then made a plea for unity.

“The truth is that it did not take long before everyone realised that we must protect each other to protect ourselves.

“And the truth is too that Europe has now become the world's beating heart of solidarity,” she added, before listing examples such as Danish respirators being sent to Italy.

Relations between Brussels and Rome, which is traditionally staunchly pro-EU, have been further strained by deep divisions over how to try and restore the economy once the crisis is over.

Italy has called for the creation of “corona bonds” - joint debt issued to member states of the EU which would help finance the battle against the virus and help the recovery of the bloc's economies.

Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, warned last week that without greater solidarity, the EU could collapse. “If we do not seize the opportunity to put new life into the European project, the risk of failure is real,” he said.

But Germany and the Netherlands opposed the idea, saying they did not want to underwrite the debt of other countries.

The row exposed long-standing divides between frugal northern countries and southern member states that are characterised as fiscally imprudent.

The Netherlands’ foreign minister was forced to apologise after asking why Italy had not saved up money for a crisis when times were better.

Mrs von der Leyen took a veiled swipe at politicians who have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could destroy the EU.

“There are still some who want to point fingers or deflect blame. And there are others who would rather talk like populists than tell unpopular truths. To this, I say stop. Stop and have the courage to tell the truth.”

One of those populists is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the hard-Right League party and de facto leader of the opposition, who was unimpressed by the mea culpa from Brussels.

“It’s not enough – apologies, a smile and a couple of pats on the back are not enough,” he said. “Italy has poured €140 billion into the coffers of the EU, with that money going to other countries to sustain their industry, agriculture and tourism.”

But Luigi di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, welcomed the apology. The admission was “an important act of truth,” he said. “The EU should have the courage to defend and protect its peoples. We need a more supportive Europe.”


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