* Europe grappling with swift spread of coronavirus
* EU leaders to shut external borders, push aid package (Adds efforts to fly EU citizens back to Europe)
By Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS, March 17 (Reuters) – European Union leaders meeting via videoconference on Tuesday are likely to seal off the EU’s external borders and stress a “whatever it takes” approach to easing the economic fallout from the likely long coronavirus crisis.
France was going into lockdown on Tuesday to contain the spread of the disease and the death toll in Italy jumped above 2,000, as European banks warned of falling incomes and airlines pleaded for government aid.
The EU has scrambled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing their own border checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, limiting exports of medical equipment or failing to share key information swiftly.
The executive European Commission warned member states that this was just the beginning of the crisis and Germany said it would run for “months rather than weeks”, diplomats said after talks on Monday evening to prepare for Tuesday’s call.
Three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – criticised Poland for blocking their citizens in transit from returning home.
Pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron, the Commission proposed closing Europe’s external borders to foreigners.
“That was meant to convince European countries to drop internal and unilateral border moves. But it’s hard to see anyone doing it,” an EU diplomat said, adding the move was largely symbolic as the virus was already within.
The leaders will also discuss repatriating Europeans stranded abroad as airlines cut flights. Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said nearly 300 Austrian and other European nationals were flown back from Morocco to Vienna on Tuesday.
EU leaders will also stress their “whatever it takes” approach to cushioning the economic blow from the pandemic, including by relaxing limitations on state aid.
The bloc’s anti-trust chief proposed allowing governments to offer grants or tax advantages of up to 500,000 euros ($550,000) to ailing companies, though some EU countries want Brussels to go further.
The EU is also seeking to pool resources to safeguard medical supplies but the Commission said its first call for more masks and gloves received no offers. It will now try to buy ventilators and testing kits.
“While the EU and its member states are in a fire extinction mode, it is equally important to prepare for the days when the contagion will be contained as the current crisis will have very dire consequences on European economies,” said Claire Dheret of the European Policy Centre think-tank.
“Preparing for the recovery in a coordinated way will be another test case for the EU’s solidarity.” (Aditional reporting by John Chalmers, Foo Yun Chee, Michel Rose and Andreas Rinke; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich)