Giuseppe Conte: ‘Distorted stereotypes’ hinder common EU recovery

Proposed coronavirus fund is an important step, but more coordinated action is needed.

Giuseppe Conte: ‘Distorted stereotypes’ hinder common EU recovery

Giuseppe Conte is the prime minister of Italy.

ROME — The French and German proposal for a €500 billion coronavirus recovery fund is a bold and significant step toward a common European Union response to the pandemic that has devastated the continent. But it’s also only just that: a step.

If we are to overcome this crisis together, as a union of common interests and common values, much more needs to be done.

By dint of misfortune, Italy has the longest experience on the Continent in confronting the coronavirus. When the pandemic reached Europe, my country was hit the first and the hardest.

With none of our neighbors to look to for guidance, we had to craft a response to an unprecedented shock, constructing our strategy as we learned more about the virus. We acted resolutely, basing our actions on scientific evidence, and our experience has served as an example for the many other countries that were hit by the virus after us.

One of the most important lessons of the crisis is that this is a shock that is shaking not just health care systems, but also our economies and societies. It is upending deeply rooted habits, disrupting entire industries and forcing restrictions on personal liberties never seen in a democracy during peacetime.

By its nature, the coronavirus crisis is a symmetric shock, affecting all countries and regions, that cannot be effectively faced by individual countries alone.

It has quickly become clear that the economic cost of this pandemic is going to be as unprecedented as its impact to public health, putting in danger not just jobs and business in EU member countries but also threatening the fundamental pillars of our union, starting with the single market and the supply chains it facilitates.

By its nature, the coronavirus crisis is a symmetric shock, affecting all countries and regions, that cannot be effectively faced by individual countries alone. It did not take me long to be convinced of this, and I have been raising awareness among other European leaders about the urgent need for a coordinated economic response.

The risk has long been clear: Europe cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past by doing too little or reacting too slowly. Failure to act swiftly will result in a sharp widening of divergences among EU member countries.

Left unchecked, this crisis will jeopardize the entire European project, as our common market fails to keep up with other leading economic powers. The EU will suffer a severe blow, marginalizing our economic and political position in the world.

It was for this reason that I put forward a letter urging bold action on several fronts, including the protection of our strategic industries, the preservation of the single market and the construction of an ambitious European recovery fund, to be financed by common EU debt.

The letter was eventually signed by eight other EU countries (Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain) and sent to European Council President Charles Michel on the eve of the European Council meeting on March 26.

Europe has already achieved significant results: the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact and of infringement procedures; an unprecedented monetary stimulus by the European Central Bank; and an important agreement on three new financial innovations, the European Commission’s SURE unemployment instrument, new guarantees for companies from the European Investment Bank, and a new credit line of the European Stability Mechanism.

The proposal announced last Monday in a joint press conference by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel adds a piece that has so far been missing: an ambitious recovery fund. I welcome this proposal, which is very much in the spirit of our March letter.

The French and German proposal recognizes the importance of financing the recovery with a common European effort. It also acknowledges the necessity of taking full advantage of the EU’s borrowing capacity to give grants to member countries. And — finally — it clearly links the funds to the need to repair the damages inflicted on our economies by the pandemic.

It is important to note, however, that while this is a welcome step toward the European response we all need, more must still be done in two important areas.

First, the amount of resources pulled together by all European instruments, including this recovery fund, falls short of the estimates of what many public and private institutions say will be needed to keep the economy afloat. The International Monetary Fund, for example, projects a fall in the eurozone’s GDP of 7.5 percentage points this year.

I therefore encourage the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, to present in the coming days an ambitious proposal for the recovery fund and the next Multiannual Financial Framework in line with the needs and expectations of European citizens.

Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at a press conference on the coronavirus pandemic | Oliver Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images

This is the only way to uphold the main political goals we all agreed upon for a greener, more competitive, more digital and more inclusive EU — an ambition reconfirmed by the European Parliament in a resolution adopted on May 15.

My second concern is that some EU countries are continuing to exert pressure for a “business-as-usual” European budget and a modest recovery fund, with a negligible share of grants. I am strongly convinced that their stance reflects a failure to understand the historic challenges we face.

If we allow the coronavirus crisis to increase the EU’s economic and social divergences, we will not only fail to achieve the key goals we’ve laid out in documents like the Commission’s Green Deal and the Council’s Strategic Agenda; we will also fan the flames of nationalism and widen long-term divisions in our union.

We are not asking for generosity, but for awareness of the responsibility we have to the EU’s founding values and the well-being of our citizens, as well as the fundamental role the EU and its common market play in the success of all our economies.

Splits in the EU along north-south lines have always been wrong. Basing the response to the coronavirus policy on distorted stereotypes would be more misguided than ever.

Our economies are interlinked. Many countries — especially in the north — depend on this interconnectedness for large proportions of their GDP. A fragmentation of the single market would severely affect all EU countries, even the richest in the union.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, it is important to remember that no European economy will be able to recover on its own.

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The reason Donald Trump will take a pill but not advice

He has often paid the price for ignoring experts. But he can also turn it into personal victories.

The reason Donald Trump will take a pill but not advice

At the White House on Monday afternoon, Donald Trump was ensconced in patter standard for this president—“a fake whistleblower,” “a political witch hunt,” “loser” Mitt Romney—when he out-of-the-blue announced he’s taking an antimalarial drug he has touted as a possible coronavirus treatment but increasingly has been shown to lead to heart problems and even death as the Food and Drug Administration and other public health authorities have cautioned against its use.

Reporters seemed stunned. “You’re taking hydroxychloroquine?” one asked. “Why, sir?” asked another. Subject experts, too, quickly expressed alarm, pointing to “serious hazards” and calling it “crazy” and “highly irresponsible.”

Nobody should have been surprised. “L’Affaire Hydroxy,” which raged into Tuesday, is merely the latest instance in a lifelong pattern of behavior for Trump—and landed as a tidy distillation of a handful of his most foundational traits.

He has a knack for creating confusion and distraction when he needs to alter news cycles and scramble storylines. And he has a showman’s instinct for grabbing attention. But what his surprising announcement reveals most clearly is his steadfast, decades-long aversion to expertise. Trump’s deep-seated outsider mindset engendered a willful disregard for advice that often got him into trouble—financial, reputational and otherwise. In the end, though, whether it was his ill-conceived airline, his debt-saddled casinos or his professional football misadventure, Trump’s failure to heed warnings from even his most trusted advisers often served to enhance his celebrity with a sufficient portion of the public that doesn’t take the time to parse the particulars.

“It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles” — Trump in 1984

“He thinks he’s the smartest guy on the planet,” former Trump Shuttle president Bruce Nobles told me Tuesday. “He really does.”

“It’s like when he used the Sharpie on that hurricane map,” said former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res, referring to the episode last year in which Trump cartoonishly used a marker to alter a map of the path of a storm and then fought about it for a week rather than admit the smallest of mistakes.

And now with hydroxychloroquine? “He’s going to prove that he was right,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump political adviser, “when everybody else said he was wrong.”

“Allll about the base,” Republican strategist and Trump critic Rick Wilson told me in a text on Tuesday.

“He’s got to tell those people, ‘Of course I’m taking hydroxy,’” former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci explained. “‘They’re telling you it doesn’t work, but I’m telling you it does. I am your chief of the red tribe of Trump.’”

* * *

Experts? Who needs experts? “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump said in 1984, telling a reporter he wanted to negotiate with the Soviet Union about the threat of nuclear war. “I think I know most of it anyway.”

As the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the fledging, second-tier United States Football League, Trump “didn’t know whether a football was pumped or stuffed,” in the words of an official from the team from Michigan—but he nonetheless dismissed the suggestions of the coach that he hired while drafting and trading players and inking ill-considered contracts. He also, and even more disastrously, wanted to compete directly with the bigger, better, richer National Football League by playing games in the fall instead of the spring, and he didn’t want to wait—even after outside consultants penned a report recommending that the USFL stick with the spring slate, and slow, steady growth. Trump, however, convinced enough of his fellow owners it was “bullshit.” And the decision he drove to challenge the NFL in court did more than just tank. It killed the league for good. That was in 1986.

A couple years later, shunning the guidance of his two closest, most trusted attorneys, a manic, acquisitive Trump bought the Eastern Airlines Shuttle for $365 million—a sum industry analysts and even the airline itself considered excessive. Trump renamed it the Trump Shuttle. The result was a debt-beset debacle.

In Atlantic City, in the ’80s and through the ’90s, Trump flouted the counsel of outside analysts like Marvin Roffman, in-house advisers and his own executives who told him he was growing too much, too fast and with too much debt. Instead of combining and streamlining the efforts of his three casinos and leaning on the principles of economies of scale, Trump, in effect, turned his casinos on each other, fostering conflict within his own ranks and earning a reputation among industry watchers for a management style defined by chaos. One dubbed it “disorganized crime,” according to David Cay Johnston’s book Temples of Chance. Trump wanted to do what Trump wanted to do. “You just couldn’t talk to Donald,” one of his higher-ups said at the time. “He would not listen to advice from his executives.”

In every one of these instances, Trump paid a price, at least in the short term—multiple corporate bankruptcies and very nearly personal financial ruin. Ultimately, though, he was stalled but not stained—and definitely not stopped. The headlines, no matter what they said, still made him more and more famous. And what often exasperated his staffers and minders and critics in the circles of the social and financial elite also didn’t lose him any fans.

“It’s worked for him,” granted Nobles, the Trump Shuttle president. “You can’t argue with the man’s success.”

The spotlight, after all, led to “The Apprentice,” which led to his turn toward politics, which led to the Oval Office.

Trump talks to journalists as he departs the White House | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

He frequently cites his smarts—“Donald Trump’s very, very large brain,” as he once put it. A self-styled expert on topics ranging from technology to the weather to all types of medical matters, Trump is especially attuned, too, to what his base craves. The base wanted hydroxychloroquine from the start. And the base wants it still. And Trump is well aware. “It’s what every pitchman has always done,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus once told me. “Tell the people what they want to hear.”

“I’ve received a lot of positive letters and it seems to have an impact,” he said Monday in the White House. “And maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, you’re not going to get sick or die. This is a—a pill that’s been used to a long time—for 30, 40 years on the malaria, and on lupus, too, and even on arthritis, I guess, from what I understand.”

He said he’d been taking it for about a week and half.

“And I’m still here,” he said. “I’m still here.”

Not everybody who’s known him through the years thinks he’s telling the truth.

“Not a chance,” said Res, the former executive vice president. “I don’t think he would subject himself to any potential harm. He wants everyone to think he’s taking it and to think everything he has said all along about it has been right. That’s what he wants. That’s why he’s saying he’s taking it.”

Trump and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during in a press briefing | Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Louise Sunshine, though, another former Trump Organization executive vice president, thinks he is. I asked her why. She’s known Trump for almost 50 years. Because one of his West Wing valets tested positive for the virus, she said. Because the vice president’s spokeswoman tested positive.

“Because,” Sunshine said, “he’s scared.”

“Whether he’s taking it or not,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me Tuesday evening, “I think he has two goals here. One is to distract. And in addition to distraction, he is also a very desperate man who’s trying to control something he can’t control—the coronavirus and its economic effects—and there’s a clock ticking in the back of his mind. And he said in the earliest stages of this that it’ll be like a miracle. It goes away. And so now he’s buying into miracles, and he wants other people to buy into it, too.”

Trump, in O’Brien’s estimation, is taking hydroxochloroquine, or is saying that he is, for the same reason he’s refused so far to wear a mask. “It involves,” O’Brien said, “conceding to expertise.”

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