As outbreak blows up finances, a limit to EU solidarity

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A container and barriers block a backroad used by locals on the Netherlands border with Belgium between Chaam, southern Netherlands, and Meerle, northern Belgium, Monday, March 23, 2020. Both countries have come to a near standstill as their governments sought to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

BRUSSELS – The European Union is taking unprecedented action to help member countries endure the massive economic shock of the virus outbreak, but some nations are resisting the idea of shared borrowing to cover the heavy costs - suggesting that even during this crisis there are limits to solidarity in a bloc that is trying to reaffirm itself after Brexit.

As governments scramble to put together hundreds of billions of euros (dollars) to save lives as well as companies and families from going bankrupt, many of the worst-hit countries in Europe are also those that can least afford the costs, like Italy.

The EU's executive has temporarily set aside its strict rules on spending to give governments the leeway they need to keep their economies afloat. That will only go so far, however, as it would leave the most affected countries managing their own worsened finances once the crisis has abated.

Its governments have so far stopped short of bigger action involving breaking a longstanding taboo: joint borrowing among countries that share the euro currency. Leaders are expected to discuss the question in a teleconferenced summit on Thursday.

“To which extent Europeans help each other in this acute emergency can shape popular perceptions of what Europe stands for – and for a long time to come,” said Holger Schmieding, the chief economist at Berenberg bank.

Finance ministers from the 19 EU countries that use the bloc's common currency, the euro, have agreed on letting countries borrow up to 2% of GDP from the European Stability Mechanism, a bailout fund set up during the debt crisis a decade ago.

The fund took part in the rescue of indebted countries such as Greece and Ireland in the last decade. It is backed by all 19 eurozone countries, and in a sense would represent shared finances in another form. It has lending firepower of 410 billion euros. ($444 billion).

The credit line may be enough to keep indebted countries such as Italy from going bankrupt in coming months, but could still leave them with longer-term debt trouble. Money from the rescue fund might not even cover Italy's additional spending, whose deficit is estimated to run as high as 10% of GDP this year, from under 3% currently. It would send its huge public debt pile of 132% of GDP even higher.