BERLIN (Reuters) - The coronavirus is the European Union’s biggest ever challenge and member states must show greater solidarity so that the bloc can emerge stronger from the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday.
Germany and the Netherlands have been criticised by Italy and Spain - the two countries worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak - for rejecting calls that the euro zone issue common debt to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic.
Merkel reaffirmed Germany’s opposition to pooling its debt with other countries in the euro system but said she supported using the currency bloc’s bailout fund to help badly affected countries to weather the crisis.
“In my view... the European Union is facing the biggest test since its foundation,” Merkel told a news conference. “We have a big health challenge that is impacting all member states, however differently. It is a symmetrical shock.”
Stressing that Germany would be weakened if the EU was seen as showing insufficient solidarity with its most needy members, Merkel said: “It will be about showing that we are ready to defend our Europe, to strengthen it.”
Germany would also support a post-crisis stimulus programme for the euro zone and the broader EU. “Here too, Germany is ready to make a contribution,” she said.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has said the eurozone’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, with firepower of some 400 billion euros, had the instruments suitable to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic and that hard-hit countries should be given swift access to the cash.
Germany had reported 95,391 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,434 deaths as of Monday, a proportionally much lower level than that reported by other large European nations.
Merkel said on Monday that restrictions on free movement and business closures, in effect in Germany since March 22, would remain in place until at least April 19 and that it was too early to talk about relaxing the lockdown.
A government document seen by Reuters on Monday maps out a phased return to normal life after the lockdown ends, with measures that would include mandatory mask-wearing in public, limits on gatherings and the rapid tracing of infection chains.
The draft action plan would make it possible to track more than 80% of people with whom an infected person had contact within 24 hours of diagnosis. Infected people and those they had contact with would be quarantined, either at home or in hotels.
The document assumes the pandemic will last until 2021.
In return, shops would be allowed to reopen, as well as schools in select regions, though strict social-distancing measures would still be in place.
Strict border controls would be relaxed, but large events and private parties would remain forbidden, the document said.
As soon as enough protective masks are available, it would be made compulsory to wear them on trains and in buses as well as in factories and public buildings, it said.
Writing by Joseph Nasr and Thomas Escritt, Editing by Gareth Jones