EU meltdown: Pope says future of Europe at stake over coronavirus aid tensions

In his Urbi et Orbi blessing delivered at a deserted St Peter’s Bascilica on Easter Sunday, the head of the Catholic Church urged political leaders to cast aside “rivalries of the past” and unite under a “spirit of solidarity”. Yet Europe’s fault lines and divisions were vividly on display during negotiations over the financial rescue package for member states. Last week EU finance ministers finally agreed a £430 billion rescue package for European countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

The package agreed is much less than what the Europe Central Bank (ECB) called for in order to help countries cope with the economic fallout from the devastating health crisis.

The ECB argued that countries would need in the region of £1.3 trillion to help them navigate their way through the financial chaos wreaked by the COVID-19 storm.

However, EU ministers failed to accept a demand from both France and Italy to share out the costs of the crisis by issuing so-called coronabonds.

This would have made it much easier for countries with large debts, such as Italy and Spain, to raise credit at affordable rates.

But the idea was strongly resisted by both the Netherlands and Germany, who suspect Italy is using the crisis in Lombardy to rebrand the rejected concept of eurobonds in which the north finances the debts of the wreckless south.

In his address the pontiff said that the “selfishness of particular interests” posed a threat to “the peaceful coexistence and development of future generations”.

Pope Francis explained: “Among the many areas of the world affected by the coronavirus, I think in a special way of Europe.

“After the second world war, this beloved continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past.

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“It is more urgent than ever, especially in the present circumstances, that these rivalries do not regain force, but that all recognise themselves as part of a single family and support one another.

“Let us not lose the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, also by turning to innovative solutions.

“The only alternative is the selfishness of particular interests and the temptation of a return to the past, at the risk of severely damaging the peaceful coexistence and development of future generations.”

The lack of a coherent EU collective response to the pandemic was also severely criticised by the vice-president of the Jacques Delors Institute thinktank.

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Pope Francis’ appeal for unity fell on deaf ears as the Italy and Holland continued to argue over the terms of the new bailout.

While the Italian prime minister, Guiseppe Conte, said the deal was just the first step and that he would “fight until the end” for the bonds, the Dutch finance minister reiterated his opposition to idea.

Wopke Hoekstra said: “We are and will remain opposed to Eurobonds.

“We think this concept will not help Europe or the Netherlands in the long-term.”

The Dutch position produced a blistering attack by a former Italian prime minister, who accused the Dutch of helping to tear the European Union apart.

Enrico Letta told the Dutch press that the Italian view of the Netherlands has been seriously damaged.

He said: “It did not help that a day after German customs officials stopped a huge amount of masks at the border, Russian trucks carrying relief supplies drove through the streets of Rome and millions of masks were sent from China.

“Matteo Salvini is waiting for this type of action from the Netherlands and Germany so that he can say: you see, we have no use for the European Union.”

Nicole Gnesotto said: “The EU’s lack of preparations, its powerlessness, its timidity are staggering.

“Of course, health is not part of its competency, but it is not without means or responsibility.”

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