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Berlin pushes back in coronavirus propaganda war


The EU is trying to fight back in the coronavirus propaganda war — with Germany leading the charge by shipping supplies and providing hospital care to patients from other European countries.

The bloc has been widely accused of lacking solidarity in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis as member countries shut down their borders, even with fellow EU states, and slapped export restrictions on medical equipment.

Meanwhile, China, Russia and even Cuba received widespread publicity for sending protective equipment, ventilators and doctors to Europe to help countries fight the pandemic.

Facing the prospect of a Euroskeptic backlash if Europe fails to rally during the crisis, EU member countries are now scrambling to show the European Union is a genuine community.

Germany, the EU’s biggest and richest country, which has been the target of particular ire from other EU members for putting its own interests first, is especially keen to demonstrate it’s stepping up.

On Tuesday, a plane from China brought more than 3 million masks, 100,000 testing kits and 86 ventilators to Hungary.

In recent days, Germany has sent medical supplies to Italy and started taking in critical-care patients from overburdened hospitals in the French region of Alsace and northern Italy.

On Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had proposed to his European counterparts activating a solidarity clause in the EU treaties.

“We need to further intensify coordination at European level,” said Maas. “This would mean that the response to the coronavirus could be strengthened by very specific measures … [and] that material and personnel capacities could be made available within the EU, especially where the need is greatest.”

Activating the clause would have symbolic value, although some officials question how much difference it would make in practical terms as EU countries are able to help each other without such a formal step. But European officials acknowledged that the bloc is not just fighting the pandemic but also engaged in a global messaging battle.

“This solidarity issue isn’t a gimmick, it is the condition for the survival of the European project in the aftermath,” an Elysée palace official said Wednesday.

“Last Friday we [France] sent 1 million masks to Italy and 200,000 protective suits, to help our neighbor,” the official said. “We didn’t communicate enough on the regional, local efforts to help each other out. Germany delivered masks to Italy, France delivered masks to Italy — as many as China has so far.”

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A senior EU diplomat said Tuesday: “We must not lose the propaganda war by suddenly receiving all sorts of things from Cuba, Russia and China.” The diplomat spoke after a meeting with fellow ambassadors and European Council President Charles Michel, who had discussed the issue.

The diplomat added that ambassadors discussed the need for the EU to have its own stocks of face masks and ventilators, as well as the urgency of fighting Russian attempts to sow distrust and division in Europe via coronavirus fake news: “There was a clear call by many member states that said: Now we need to do something.”

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said this week that a “battle of narratives” is under way both worldwide and within Europe over the coronavirus. In a blog post, he said the EU “must be aware there is a geo-political component [to the crisis] including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity.’”

“It is vital that the EU shows it is a Union that protects and that solidarity is not an empty phrase,” he said.

Beijing vs. Berlin

Some politicians who are critical of the EU have already declared they don’t expect much solidarity from European partners and are looking to China instead.

“We’re not going to the EU for them to give us anything, or help or anything like that, because that doesn’t work,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told state radio Friday. “We’re taking care of things ourselves. So I’ve sent out all the emissaries I’ve been able to, and we’ve reactivated our entire system of international contacts. We have our people at airports from Beijing to Shanghai.”

On Tuesday, a plane from China brought more than 3 million masks, 100,000 testing kits and 86 ventilators to Hungary. Late on Monday the Czech Republic, an EU member with one of the lowest levels of popular support for the bloc, received 1.9 million face masks and 100,000 respirators from China.

The publicity around such aid has been a source of frustration for European officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that the EU had also “sent considerable amounts of equipment to China” when the pandemic first hit the People’s Republic, so any aid coming now from Beijing was “simply reciprocity.”

The publicity around Chinese aid has been a source of frustration for European officials | Pool photo by Zsolt Szigetvary/AFP via Getty Images

Yet while Beijing and others have basked in positive coverage, Berlin has been in the firing line.

Despite being neither the first nor the last EU country to put an export ban on protective gear, Germany was chastised heavily by many EU countries. After the European Commission threatened legal proceedings, Berlin removed its ban last week.

After these “ugly scenes,” a second EU diplomat said, efforts were now underway “to show a friendly, solidarity-oriented face.”

Sending supplies

The German federal government last Thursday sent free-of-charge supplies to Italy, including 300 of the much-needed ventilators to keep patients with serious symptoms alive.

However, some officials needed time to get the solidarity memo.

Baden-Württemberg, one of the richest German regional states which borders France’s hard-hit Alsace region, got shellacked in a report by German weekly Zeit last Thursday. The paper noted the region had more than half the number of intensive care beds available in all of France and few were in use — yet there was no support for patients from the other side of the Rhine.

That same day, state premier Winfried Kretschmann asked hospitals to help out their neighbors, and on Saturday a first patient from Alsace was flown out to Germany, with at least nine others following shortly afterward. The German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland also offered to take critical patients from France (as did Luxembourg and Switzerland).

On Monday, two critical patients from Italy were admitted by the eastern state of Saxony, with four more reportedly being prepared for the coming days.

Andreas Schwaab, a member of the European Parliament from Baden-Württemberg, said Germany was helping its EU partners in its own way, even if it made less of a PR splash than rivals’ efforts.

“It is important to counter the Russian and Chinese propaganda but we don’t do it with big charters full of equipment like they do,” said Schwaab, a member of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats. “We do it in a less visible way. In Italy’s media, it’s easier to sell big Russian planes than the structural support that France and Germany provide to Italy.”

While Baden-Württemberg has extended help to its near neighbors, other German regional states have offered to take in patients from further afield, in Italy.

On Monday, two critical patients from Italy were admitted by the eastern state of Saxony, with four more reportedly being prepared for the coming days. Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria, declared Tuesday that his southern state would “help Italy with medical equipment and admit some patients within our possibilities.”

Still, the overall number of coronavirus patients from Italy and France in German hospitals is in the teens.

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“It’s an important symbolic thing, but it’s a drop in the ocean,” the second EU diplomat said.

Germany already has a highly regarded healthcare system and Berlin has the financial firepower to beef it up. The government on Monday announced a supplementary €156 billion budget, which Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said would, as well as providing economic help, double the number of intensive care beds to 56,000.

Yet it seems unlikely that large numbers of European coronavirus patients will be treated outside their home country, whether that’s in Germany or elsewhere. Treating patients abroad presents considerable practical challenges — from safely transporting the seriously ill to language problems.

There’s also the question of how long Germany will have spare capacity, as coronavirus cases climb. On Tuesday, the northern city of Hamburg alone reported 18 patients in intensive care — a week earlier it had only two.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

This article has been updated.

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