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Coronavirus: EU calls for coordinated exit plan

April 15, 2020

The Commission wants member states to collaborate on easing coronavirus restrictions. But with disparate national responses to COVID-19, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Ursula von der Leyen
Image: Reuters/J. Geron

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is unveiling on Wednesday her road map for lifting coronavirus restrictions across the bloc. In a 14-page document laying out her ideas, von der Leyen says that "although it is clear that the path back to normalcy will take a long time, it is also obvious that we cannot maintain these extraordinary restrictions indefinitely." 

Shoppers wearing masks stand outside a store in Vienna
Austria has begun lifting restrictions, but people must contineu to wear masks in publicImage: AFP/APA/H. Fohringer

She says lockdowns across the continent had proven effective, yet also precipitated a tremendous economic shock and placed a heavy burden on public life. EU officials estimate that the eurozone economy could shrink by 10 percent this year — a drop in economic productivity not seen since the global economic crisis of the 1920s.

Avoiding tensions between member states

Ursula von der Leyen urges all 27 EU member states to coordinate their lifting of restrictions and to continue coordinating their approach to tackling the pandemic going forward. She warns that "insufficient coordination in the lifting of restrictions poses the risk of creating negative effects for all member states and most likely increases tensions between them." She admits there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but that member states should strive to inform each other of steps taken.

At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, various EU members states had closed their borders, or imposed travel restrictions, without giving each other advance warning. Ursula von der Leyen now hopes that the re-opening of borders over the coming weeks and months will happen in a more systematic fashion.

People sit in  bar in Stockholm, Sweden
Sweden has thus far avoided implementing restrictive measures, even as deaths from coronavirus have risen, meaning these Stockholm bargoers can enjoy beers out — for nowImage: picture-alliance/AP Photos/TT News Agency/A. Lorestani

Infections could surge again

The EU Commission says three conditions must be met for coronavirus restrictions to be eased. Brussels says that curfews could be lifted once national health care systems are no longer under such extreme strain, once infections rates have dropped off, and once particularly vulnerable groups are able to be provided with extra protection. Brussels does not, however, propose a specific time plan for this.

The paper recognizes that this is fraught with danger: "It is certain that such a gradual lifting of restrictions will lead to new infections." This is why, it states, developments must be closely monitored and new, possibly even more draconian measures will have to be imposed. Von der Leyen writes that "we will have to live with the virus until a vaccine has been developed."

Member states are autonomous actors

Some EU states, like Austria and Denmark, have already announced plans to lift some restrictions on daily life. Countries like France and Spain, meanwhile, are keeping strict measures in place.

Trocadero Plaza, with the Eifel Tower in the background, remains abandoned
France will remain in a lockdown until May 11Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

And while some states have isolated themselves, others are still permitting international flights to operate. Roughly half of all member states have declared a state of emergency, whereas Sweden, in contrast, has kept restrictions to a bare minimum. In Germany, meanwhile, there is no universal approach among its 16 federal states to fighting the virus outbreak. In the state of Bavaria, for instance, all DIY stores have been closed to help contain the virus, while in neighboring Baden-Württemberg they're free to stay open.

Revised with caution

The bloc's heads of the states and governments had prompted Ursula von der Leyen to draw up an exit strategy for the bloc. She had been ready to unveil her road map last week, yet was called back by concerned governments demanding she revise the paper.

The amended paper now has a more cautious wording, and makes suggestions, instead of demands. It appeals to all states to gradually reactivate the common market and ease travel restrictions. EU members states, meanwhile, are still to reign supreme with regard to managing public health and disease control. 

EU plans economic stimulus package

At the end of the document, Ursula von der Leyen pledges to draw up a plan to kick start the bloc's economy, which was been hit hard by the coronavirus. She says demand and production must be stimulated, and taxes possibly lowered. The paper states that "the Commission will develop a recovery strategy that builds on a new medium-term budget plan, and a reworked 2020 action plan."

Next week, the EU's heads of state and government will discuss the possibility of creating a European "Marshall Plan" to stimulate the bloc's economy recovery. Commission President von der Leyen plans to pump hundreds of billions of euros into into the recovery effort.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union