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EU’s world deal on virus – Australia, China, US make trouble

  • May 19th, 2020
  • Posted by EU Australia

The European Union’s move to get CORVID-19 investigated through the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been made difficult by Chinese-American squabbling –and Australia trying to get into the fight.

The EU focus has been to try and discover more about the virus and its origins, and draw lessons about managing both the particular disease and others that may follow.

But first they have had to manage, coax and bring into the process, unreasoning parties on two sides: on one hand American and Australian governments picking a fight with the Chinese, on the other, Chinese communists indulging their accustomed habits of coercion and abuse. It’s a picture of maturity from Brussels and something much less from these other partners.


The virtual meeting of the WHO assembly (picture, above) convened this week, began with an admonition by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for countries to begin co-operating through the WHO – the only world body set up to coordinate defences against pandemics:

“Many countries have ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, as a result, the virus has spread throughout the world and is now heading towards southern countries where it could have even more devastating effects and we risk new peaks and waves.”

The European proposal for a “mechanism” does not insist on an immediate investigation but wants radically improved global coordination. The EU, with three of its member states (France with 28239 people dead, Italy 32007 and Spain 27709) among the hardest hit, has funded its own joint initiatives. The United Kingdom, which walked out of Europe, but has still not signed the last terms of separation, or a trade deal, is worse off, with 34796. Its eligibility to get benefits, or contribute to the cost of the relief programs, might depend on whether its final separation can be enacted on schedule this year.

This week the EU diverted 800-billion (A$1.34-billion) from its standing “solidarity fund”, for distributing economic resources among the 27 member states, to impacts of the coronavirus. Earlier it authorised special drawing rights for affected countries,  €540-billion in total (A$902.75-billion), from the stabilisation fund (ESM) set up for economic crises. Other measures include a joint fund with the pharmaceutical industry, totalling EU117-million (A$195.6-million), for treatments and diagnostics under an innovative medicines program. It has advertised all this within a problem solving response; a contrast to the level of politicisation of the crisis by China, Australia and the United States.


Chinese representatives told the WHO gathering they would contribute more money towards the campaign against the disease, claimed they had been transparent in handling it, and committed themselves to take part in an investigation of it only later — after it was “brought under control”.

The United States has persisted with claims that the WHO itself should be investigated, for tolerating delays by China in announcing the emergence of the disease in Hubei province, and in providing data on it. The President, Donald Trump, has demanded to know if it came from a laboratory leak, trading insults with Chinese officials wanting to know if it was carried into China by visiting US service personnel.


The Australian position came up in a welter of activity mostly in the week beginning Sunday 19 April, when Trump told a media conference he wanted to send a specialist team into China to investigate COVID-19 – maybe to sheet home some direct responsibility for American deaths.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, tried for some positioning on the world stage, proposing a “three-point” plan, in synch with the drift of US thinking, clearly pointed at China: a shake-up of the WHO to include taking away the veto rights of member states on new programs; setting up an outside review body to evaluate the WHO in a crisis; and then empowerment of the WHO to send inspectors into a country to investigate a disease outbreak, like arms inspectors checking on a disarmament deal.

He had been under some pressure from the strong anti-China putsch in the right wing of his government. The Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, told an interviewer on 17 April that he had heard of documents held by America revealing the source of COVID-19 in China, and that the Chinese needed to be more transparent about it; getting some complaints from Beijing about being “smeared”.

On the Wednesday, 22 April, Morrison said he had just had a “constructive” talk about his proposal with Trump, and had been ringing around with it, to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron in France, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. The Europeans gave a non-committal response, sending him away to await their initiative through the EU.

To those with a memory for such things the incident may have had some of the flavour of Prime Minister Bob Menzies’s intervention in the 1956 Suez crisis. The Americans had completed a deal before Menzies got to Cairo, leaving him to deal with some derision even back on home turf.

Briefing officers for Morrison with a nose for a compliant or stupid reporter got a string of news reports out of this, that the Australian Prime Minister was “leading” an international initiative to probe the origins of the virus. There is no leading where nobody follows, and on the bare public record it appears to have been mostly an extension of the friendship with Trump. That is how it was seen at Beijing: crawling to Trump, nothing to do with the international deal being worked out at the WHO.


So the shouting from Beijing picked up, bringing with it a set of expensive trade sanctions, backing up earlier threats of a boycott by none other than their Canberra ambassador. Making claims of below-cost dumping, Beijing ended its A$500-million barley trade with Australia, by imposing an 80% tariff. It was in time to take advantage of a new trade deal with America, giving the Chinese breweries access to a new supply from there, and providing a little irritant, if not an actual wedge between the two Western buddies. The move might have come from misconceptions about supports for agriculture like drought relief, and water infrastructure, but producers were quick to insist they don’t get subsidies that would permit dumping. Cancellation of deals with some Australian abattoirs cut one third of a beef trade worth $3.5-billion p.a., done on a pretext of faulty packaging or labelling. Nobody is relishing the long task of finding other markets especially if there is more to come, like cutting the flow of wine for Chinese nouveaux riches.

Some Australians, not too many, have accepted the notion that the two issues are separate: trade measures said to be due to lapses over the rules, and high dudgeon in China, maybe “loss of face”, about time-and-again being the home of insidious zoonotic diseases. Chinese public culture often enough presents itself on the crude and robust side, so some new rhetoric was to be expected, duly delivered: Australia, said an official commentator, was a glob of chewing gum on China’s shoe, to be rubbed off on a rock. It was similar enough to old “digging dogs” references to the mining industry, and from the Mao days “running dogs of imperialism”. Australian culture also prone to be on the robust side, not too many people were observed crying over some rude language.


Pictures: wikipedia,, schoolworkfriend,, WHO