EU grapples over virus recovery plan, Barcelona in lockdown

EU grapples over virus recovery plan, Barcelona in lockdown

BRUSSELS-Agence France-Presse
EU grapples over virus recovery plan, Barcelona in lockdown

European Union leaders were due to meet for a third day on July 19 to try and agree on a giant post-coronavirus economic recovery plan as four million residents of Barcelona in virus-ravaged Spain were effectively placed under lockdown.    

The pandemic, which has spawned economic mayhem worldwide, also saw the G20 -- the world's most industrialised nations -- consider extending debt relief for coronavirus-hit poor countries in the second half of 2020.

EU leaders in Brussels remained deadlocked Saturday over the COVID-19 recovery plan due to resistance from the Netherlands and its "frugal" allies: Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.    

European Council president Charles Michel was expected to propose another plan to the 27 leaders at noon (1000 GMT) on July 19 after his blueprints for a 750-billion-euro ($850 billion) package were refused by the richer northern member states.    

Michel's latest proposal would keep the total recovery budget at 750 million euros, but shift the balance slightly from grants -- down from 500 million to 450 million -- to loans, which rise from 250 million to 300 million, according to a document seen by AFP.    

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has insisted member states retain final approval of any funding -- an effective veto -- for recipients.    

He says EU oversight is necessary to oblige countries like Spain and Italy to reform their economies to handle future crises better.    

Michel's latest plan includes a "super emergency brake" that gives any country a three-day window to trigger a review by all member states of another's spending plans.            

Meanwhile Barcelona, one of Europe's most visited cities, effectively went back into lockdown on July 18.     

Spain's COVID-19 death toll of 28,400 is one of Europe's worst and the country has identified more than 150 new virus clusters across the country.    

The regional government of Catalonia urged nearly four million residents of metropolitan Barcelona to stay home unless absolutely necessary, banning gatherings of over 10 people and shutting cinemas, theatres and nightclubs, after the number of new cases tripled in a week.    

"It's a disaster," wailed Maria Quintana, looking at her empty bar terrace by the Sagrada Familia in Spain's second city.     

"We'd just started to see things coming back to life with the arrival of a few foreign tourists, so this is a step backwards," said Quintana, 35.     

The virus has now killed nearly 600,000 people and infected over 14 million as it continues to surge across the globe despite months of unprecedented lockdown.            

France, where masks will be compulsory in indoor public spaces from July 20, was closely watching coronavirus clusters in neighbouring Spain, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, less than a month after the border between the two countries was reopened.     

French authorities were particularly concerned about clusters popping up in Catalonia, one of the border regions.    When asked about possible border closures, Castex responded: "It is a real issue that we also need to discuss with the Spanish authorities".    

India hit one million cases on July 17, the day Brazil topped two million -- although the World Health Organization said Brazil's contagion has "plateaued" with the rate of infection stabilising after 77,000 deaths.    

World Bank President David Malpass on July 18 called for a debt suspension initiative for poorer coronavirus-hit countries to be extended through the end of 2021, while multiple charities said it needs to be stretched through 2022 to avert a "catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people".    

In their final statement after  virtual talks hosted by Riyadh, G20 ministers and bankers said they would "consider a possible extension of the (debt suspension initiative) in the second half of 2020."    

So far, 42 countries have applied for the initiative, asking for a cumulative $5.3 billion in debt to be deferred.

Addressing the impact of the virus on the world's poorest, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the pandemic had revealed the "fragile skeleton" of societies and could push 100 million people into extreme poverty.    

"Entire regions that were making progress on eradicating poverty and narrowing inequality have been set back years, in a matter of months," he warned.    

In Israel, police fired water cannons to disperse anti-government protests attended by thousands on July 18, as public anger mounted over the handling of the coronavirus crisis.    

Demonstrators outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem and at a park in Tel Aviv voiced frustration over the government's response to a growing epidemic that has taken a devastating economic toll.     

With Israel recording more than 1,000 new coronavirus infections a day in recent weeks, the government on July 17 announced a broad range of new restrictions.     

Shops, markets and other public venues have closed on weekends, while restaurants have been restricted to take away and delivery.