BRUSSELS, March 10 (Reuters) - The European Union is strugging to come up with a coordinated response to the spread of coronavirus, the latest stress test of the bloc’s solidarity after being buffetted by the euro zone debt turmoil, the migration crisis of 2015-16 and then Brexit.
The EU’s 27 member states are hardly in lock-step as the shadow of the virus lengthens across Europe, and tensions have emerged between them over the emergency, which is why European Council President Charles Michel called their leaders to join a video-conference later on Monday to find a united front.
France, Germany and the Czech Republic have refused to lift controls on the export of protective medical gear to avoid shortages at home, despite a formal request for kit from Italy, which is reeling from an explosion of infections and deaths.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, asked about Germany’s apparent reluctance to coordinate a response with its EU partners, told a news conference on Monday: “In political life there are often disappointments.”
Austria unilaterally broke with the rules of free movement of people on Tuesday by denying entry to people arriving from Italy to slow the spread of coronavirus.
This is the first case of restrictions being placed on the free travel Schengen area of 26 European countries since the outbreak of the virus, an an echo of 2015, when a wave of migrants and refugees prompted several to close their borders.
It is also the first time border controls have been imposed on health grounds in the EU.
Sharp differences over the influx of migrants strained the unity of the bloc and fanned euroscepticism, a view that the project has evolved too far from its original aim of economic interdependence to an “ever closer” political union.
Although all 27 EU member states have now recorded cases of infection with the virus, their responses have varied widely, from the near-shutdown of everyday life in Italy and a ban on large gatherings in France to little more than public health advice in some countries.
The EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, on Tuesday urged member states to coordinate better.
“Sharing of resources; sharing of information and expertise; sharing of equipment, and sharing of information on testing & treatment equipment protocols. This cannot be business as usual,” she told the European Parliament, where lawmakers were asked to sit with an empty seat between them to reduce the risk of contagion.
The problem for the European Commission is that, while it is the EU’s executive arm, its capacity to tackle the crisis is limited because responsibility for public health lies largely with member states.
That is why the focus will now turn to the leaders, who are expected to meet by video-conference from 5 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Tuesday to discuss coordinated measures to contain the outbreak, manage medical supplies and research for a vaccine.
“This is the first time that it is being addressed at this level,” an EU official said, stressing that establishing solidarity and coordination was critical.
“There has been irritation among member states that some are piling up supplies, and not contributing what they have to,” the official said. We fear everyone is working in his own domain.”
The EU leaders will also consider the impact of the outbreak on their already-stuttering economies, and on this there are steps that they and the European Commission can take.
The first would be to grant flexibility on fiscal rules for countries that need to spend, and the Commission has already granted this to Italy. With this leeway, states could support firms to avoid layoffs and suspend tax and utility bills.
“A concerted EU fiscal stimulus is not off the table,” said one euro zone official.
A point of reference being discussed is the economic recovery plan agreed by EU leaders in December 2008 during the financial crisis, when they pumped 200 billion euros - or 1.5% of GDP - to boost confidence and demand.
That was made possible by a temporary suspension of state aid rules, which allowed governments to spend hundreds of billions of euros to rescue banks. Similar measures are now under consideration for crisis-hit sectors.
The EU could also dip into its own long-term budget for crisis measures, but there is not much available there because the current budget is in the last of its seven years. (Reporting by Leigh Thomas, Jan Strupczewski, Francesco Guarascio, John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Angus MacSwan)