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Europe grapples with ‘socio-economic tsunami’ of coronavirus crisis

Italy’s prime minister on Tuesday declared coronavirus was causing a “socio-economic tsunami” as European leaders agreed to seal off external borders, but many countries thwarted solidarity by imposing frontier curbs of their own.

“The enemy is the virus and now we have to do our utmost to protect our people and to protect our economies,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the second video conference in a week of the European Union’s 27 leaders.

“We are ready to do everything that is required. We will not hesitate to take additional measures as the situation evolves.” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose country has been hardest hit by a global health crisis now centred in Europe, said no nation would be left untouched by the “tsunami”.

Asked about Conte’s proposal, Chancellor Angela Merkel said euro zone finance ministers would continue discussing ways to help their economies cushion the impact, but no decision has been made.

“These are initial discussions and there have been no decisions by the finance ministers,” said Merkel. “I will talk to Olaf Scholz so that Germany continues to take part . But there are no results regarding this.”

The EU has scrambled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing their own border checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, limiting exports of medical equipment or failing to share key data swiftly.

The national leaders agreed on Tuesday to close the external borders of most European countries for 30 days and establish fast-track lanes at their countries’ frontiers to keep medicines and food moving.

France went into lockdown on Tuesday to contain the spread of the highly contagious new coronavirus and Belgium announced it would follow suit, as the death toll in Italy jumped above 2,000, European banks warned of falling incomes and pummelled airlines pleaded for government aid.

The EU’s executive European Commission warned member states that this was just the beginning of the crisis and Germany said it would run for “months rather than weeks”, diplomats said.