Coronavirus threatens Brussels’ daily business

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EU parliament chiefs have decided to go ahead with this month’s session in Strasbourg, but underneath the show of normality is a creeping realisation of how much the coronavirus outbreak could disrupt the bloc’s business

The bar for cancelling Strasbourg is high given French sensitivities over its status as an EU capital (and the financial pickle that would cause).

The last time it was called off, in 2008, was because of the partial collapse of the parliamentary chamber’s ceiling. But the prospect of MEPs making their regular pilgrimage to Alsace does not mean it is business as usual for the EU.

So far there have been two confirmed cases of EU civil servants with coronavirus, which came to light on Wednesday. One is an official who works at the Council of the European Union in Brussels, while the other is a staffer at the European Defence Agency. 

In an internal email to staff, the council said that it was “identifying the people with whom the colleague has been in close contact in the workplace since 4 days before the onset of symptoms”. The institution said it was “also identifying locations . . . where the colleague was present and ensuring appropriate cleaning. There should be no disruption to the work of our institutions,” the council insisted.

But the cases inside the institutions are only a small part of the challenge the virus poses to the smooth running of EU business. 

Covid-19 cases have now been confirmed in virtually all EU member states. Italy remains Europe’s worst affected country, with more than 2,500 cases confirmed. 

EU officials worry that Brussels’s work is highly vulnerable to the travel restrictions and other measures that public authorities across the bloc might take in the coming weeks to slow down the infection rate.

The council, for example, is an institution that is all about the organisation of meetings, many of which require people to travel from national capitals. It hosts thousands of meetings a year, with participants ranging from regulatory technocrats to ministers. 

Brussels is also this week playing host to around 100 British officials. They have spent the past two days holed up in a conference centre with their EU counterparts, navigating the first round of future relationship negotiations. 

The UK government and the European Commission have agreed on an intensive rhythm of talks, with rounds every two to three weeks, alternating between Brussels and London. So far the main precaution taken has been to not shake hands.

Officials underline that at the moment there are no plans to postpone those negotiation rounds. The same goes for ministerial meetings in the council and other important business. EU foreign ministers, for example, are meeting in Croatia on Thursday to discuss the fighting in Syria. A special meeting of health ministers has been called in Brussels on Friday precisely to tackle the spread of the virus. 

The European Parliament said earlier this week that “core functions” such as committee meetings would be maintained — only less essential matters such as visitor groups and cultural events were cancelled. But Brussels knows restrictions will have to be ratcheted up if the virus continues to spread. 

jim.brunsden@ft.com@jimbrunsden

Chart du jour: credit crunched

Global public and private debt levels have stayed stubbornly high in the aftermath of the financial crisis. John Plender looks at whether the coronavirus could sow the seeds for a fresh debt spiral. 

Planet Europe

Gender initiative 
Brussels will embark on a new push to crack down on gender violence and boost women’s representation in senior positions, writes Sam Fleming.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova (above) and Helena Dalli, commissioner for equality, will launch a public consultation on ways to boost pay transparency, with a goal to introduce binding measures by 2020. 

Their strategy document, seen by the Financial Times, will also call for gender balance in all levels of the European Commission’s management by 2024. There will be extra funding to boost female participation in European Parliament elections being held the same year.

Brussels will also push for tough criminal penalties for those guilty of violence against women. The Istanbul Convention, which sets international standards in this area, has not been ratified by all EU members. So the commission will in 2021 propose its own legal measures to achieve the same objectives and boost harmonisation in the area.

Brussels will propose that the EU’s upcoming Digital Services Act clarify what measures are expected from online platforms to address illegal activities including online violence targeting women. The document warns: 

“Progress with regard to gender equality is neither inevitable nor irreversible. We therefore need to give a new impetus.”

Semantics battle
EU27 interior ministers were at loggerheads late into the evening in Brussels over how to draft a joint statement over Greece’s border flare up with Turkey. Athens, backed by Cyprus, pushed for a strong condemnation of Turkey’s “political” use of refugees and wanted references to Turkey’s malign role in Syria’s conflict. Germany, the Netherlands and a host of other countries objected. The final wording changed from “strongly condemns” to “strong rejects” Turkey’s actions. Here’s the final statement. “Greece needs our support but we can’t burn our bridges with Erdogan,” said one diplomat. 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by FILIP SINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10573897g) Candidate of The Left (Die Linke) party for the state elections Bodo Ramelow is sworn in as state prime minister of Thuringia after the election of a new state prime minister of Thuringia in state parliament of Thuringia, Erfurt, Germany 04 March 2020. Election of a new state prime minister of Thuringia, Erfurt, Germany - 04 Mar 2020

Thuringia thaws 
The east German state of Thuringia — which rocked the country’s political establishment last month — has taken the sting out of its local politics by electing a leftwing leader to become its prime minister. (FT) The choice of Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow helps defuse a scandal where the far-right Alternative for Germany backed a liberal candidate to take the post, provoking widespread outrage. Der Spiegel’s Sebastian Fischer analyses whether Mr Ramelow can help make the far-left a respectable party of government in Berlin. 

Fiscal response 
Europe is prepared to use flexibility within its fiscal rules to fight the economic impact of the coronavirus, Mário Centeno, head of the eurogroup, said on Wednesday, Peter Wise writes in Lisbon.

Speaking after a conference call between EU finance ministers, Mr Centeno said the bloc’s fiscal rules allowed for “flexibility to cater for unusual events outside the control of government,” adding that it was “up to the European Commission to implement these rules and assess requests from member states”. He said the EU’s stability and growth pact left room for “a temporary deviation from the adjustment path, while preserving fiscal sustainability”.

This flexibility clause could be used “to the extent needed”, said Mr Centeno, provided that additional spending was linked to fighting the coronavirus and was only of a temporary nature. A meeting of the eurogroup later this month will cover “the full range of fiscal, financial and structural policies” to damp the effects on economic growth, he said.

Bailed out
Brussels is exploring ways to toughen up rules around bank rescues after some governments exploited loopholes to pump cash into struggling lenders. Bloomberg reports.

People power 
A new research paper from the European Policy Centre provides a history lesson to EU leaders grappling with how to get voters involved in the Conference on the Future of Europe:

“Organisers needn’t start from scratch. There’s already a wealth of know-how on how to involve citizens in political decision-making successfully. It would be a shame to let all that knowledge and experience go to waste.”

Coming up on Thursday 
The European Commission unveils its gender strategy at noon. Greta Thunberg will be guest of honour at a meeting of EU environment ministers in Brussels later on Thursday. 

mehreen.khan@ft.com; @mehreenkhn

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