Giuseppe Conte said nationalist politicians across the continent would soon grow in popularity as voters turn their back on Brussels – unless there is a robust and unified response to the global pandemic. Italy became the deadliest centre by the viral outbreak after its death toll surpassed China, according to figures released by the Italian Civil Protection Agency. Deaths in the country reached 3,405 as the total number of cases in Italy rose to 41,035 on Thursday, which included some 5,322 new cases.
The current number of deaths in China stands at 3,242, according to the World Health Organisation.
With the bloc’s third-largest economy at risk of a complete collapse, Mr Conte called for a united approach.
“Europe must show unity and solidarity, there is no alternative to this,” he told the Financial Times.
“If Europe fails, I fear it will fade away in the conscious of our fellow citizens, giving space to the worst nationalistic instincts. This is a different virus that we need to defeat now.”
Mr Conte has praised the recent work on the European Central Bank after this week it unveiled a €750 billion asset buying programme to help keep the fragile eurozone economy afloat.
But he also called for the €500 billion European Stability Mechanism, which was set up in 2012 during the Eurozone’s debt crisis, to be used to tackle the financial fallout from coronavirus.
He said: “The ESM was crafted with a different type of crisis in mind, so it must be adapted to the new circumstances so that we can make use of its full firepower.
“The route to follow is to open ESM credit lines to all member states to help them fight the consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic, under the condition of full accountability by each member state on the way resources are spent.”
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Italy was the first country in Europe to implement tough restrictions on the movement of people to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
France, Spain, Germany and Belgium have since followed suit with their own social distancing measures.
Mr Conte fears if other countries don’t follow his lead it could leave to the same level of suffering as the disease continues to spread across Europe.
He said: “Unfortunately, other European countries are now starting to go through the same predicament we had to suffer for the past several weeks.
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“And I can tell that every single day is a heavy one. I express all my solidarity to the peoples and to the leaders that are now confronted with the terrible situation that I and the Italian population already endured.”
The Italian leader claimed the “Italian example” of combatting coronavirus was helping other capitals with their own fightback.
But he said it was too early to say if Italy’s measures would be lifted as planned in early April.
“Many countries are following these steps, the Italian example, if you like,” he said.
“This is an unprecedented situation. It affects all of us.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible to predict when we will be able to return to normality. Only in a few days, and based on the evaluations of technical-scientific committee, I will be able to assess the effectiveness of the measures we took.”
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