EU ministers likely to agree half a trillion-euro coronavirus rescue

EU ministers likely to agree half a trillion-euro coronavirus rescue

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

By Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Euro zone finance ministers hope to agree on Tuesday on half a trillion euros worth of economic aid to finance recovery from the coronavirus epidemic, a discussion that has sown divisions as the bloc struggles with the outbreak.

No deal is in sight, however, on issuing joint debt, something Spain and Italy – the country hit the hardest by the global disease – have demanded but were denied by the more fiscally conservative Germany and the Netherlands.

The fight about how far to go to cushion the deep recession that the pandemic is expected to cause in Europe this year has left the ailing south chastising their wealthier peers for not showing enough solidarity and casting it as an existential test that could break the EU.

“It is the same as during the great crisis in the euro,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat in Brussels after serving for years as the Spanish foreign minister, told the newspaper el Mundo on Tuesday. “We must continue to look for more solidarity.”

But the Netherlands, Germany and several others are against mutualising debt. They say that all euro zone countries can still cheaply borrow on the market and EU limits on deficits have been lifted for the pandemic, so there is no need to create eurobonds now — especially since that would take years.

“Eurobonds, I wouldn’t do that, and the cabinet also wouldn’t do that,” Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra reiterated on Tuesday.

The ministers meet via videoconference from 1300 GMT on Tuesday to prepare a list of ideas for further economic aid that EU leaders might then endorse. With no agreement on debt mutualisation, they will focus on three or four steps that can be taken more swiftly.

The first is standby credit lines from the euro zone bailout fund of up to 2% of a country’s gross domestic product, or 240 billion euros in total. That will come with minimal conditions focused on health issues to alleviate Italy’s concerns it would be told to reform its economy to get access to the money.

The second is granting the European Investment Bank 25 billion euros of extra guarantees so it can step up lending by 200 billion euros, on top of a 40 billion-euro increase in lending already under way.

The third is support for the EU executive’s plan to raise 100 billion euros on the market against 25 billion euros of guarantees from all 27 governments in the bloc, to subsidise wages of workers so that companies can cut working hours of employees rather than sack them.

Finally, the ministers are likely to back a plan by the executive European Commission and the Netherlands to create an emergency support fund issuing grants for medical supplies and health care, which could reach some 20 billion euros.

The ministers will also note a French proposal to create a joint EU solidarity fund to finance long-term recovery. Worth several hundred billion euros and financed by joint borrowing, it is, however, unlikely to get broad support as debt mutualisation is a red line for the frugal camp.

“On the joint liability of all governments, it is no surprise that there are different opinions on this,” one senior official involved in preparations for the meeting said. “There is a clear need for more work and discussions.”

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