Dutch leader proposes EU fund for nations hit hard by virus

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has proposed a multibillion-euro (dollar) European Union fund to help countries in the 27-nation bloc whose health care systems have been hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

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In an interview broadcast Wednesday night by Dutch news show Nieuwsuur, Rutte said: "We are, of course, in solidarity with South Europe. There's no doubt about it.”

Speaking in Paris on Thursday, French Finance minister Bruno Le Maire welcomed the proposal as a step in the right direction.

“This is I think a very positive signal,” Le Maire said. "It’s good news that everybody now in Europe is aware of the necessity of showing a strong and clear solidarity among member states”

The proposed fund and Rutte’s comments follow harsh criticism of the Dutch from southern European nations over the country’s opposition to an issuance of joint European debt, known as coronabonds or eurobonds, and comments attributed to Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra about Spain’s ability to fund its medical response to the virus.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa last week called the comments “repugnant.”

"Hoekstra and I have said we could have communicated in a more subtle way," Rutte told Nieuwsuur.

Now Rutte says the Dutch have “taken the initiative to establish a fund in the form of gifts for countries that are economically weaker to help them with the health care costs of fighting the coronavirus.”

He expects the fund to reach 10-20 billion euros if other EU nations agree to it.

However, he also stressed that the Dutch still oppose issuing European debt to help hard-hit economies.

“The Netherlands is against that for very many reasons — it doesn't fit into the euro system,” he said. “Another thought that we have is that’s what the European emergency fund ... is for.”

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said earlier this week he hoped the European Union would put together a cohesive response to the plight of countries like his, whose economy has been crippled by the coronavirus outbreak.

Conte vowed to fight for a “strong and cohesive European response" and called the crisis “an appointment with history. Europe must say if it’s ready for this appointment” to effectively deal with social and economic shock wreaked by the pandemic.

Le Maire agreed.

“There’s one single political question: shall we stand together or not?" he said. "Shall we stand together as a unified continent to face the long term and dramatic consequences of the economic crisis or shall we give to the world the sad image of a continent divided between the north and the south?”

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Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.