EU struggles to agree virus recovery deal as global deaths surge

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 20 ------ EU leaders battled to save a beleaguered 750-billion-euro ($860-billion) virus recovery package at a summit on Sunday, as global deaths soared past 600,000 and Hong Kong raised the alarm about its growing outbreak. The United States -- the worst-affected country by far -- ended a week in which it registered its highest figures for new cases for three days running, taking its total towards 3.7 million infections and 140,00 deaths.

The virus has now infected more than 14 million people worldwide. With clusters cropping up from Spain to Australia, officials were again facing the dilemma of imposing lockdowns to protect public health or loosening restrictions to save struggling businesses. Illustrating the shrinking room for maneuver, angry demonstrators took to the streets in Israel to protest against their government's handling of the crisis. And scientists, too, were feeling the pressure as Britain ramped up its tit-for-tat row with Russia on Sunday over claims Kremlin agents hacked into British labs where virus vaccines are being developed.

'Unity and trust'

Economic recovery is at the forefront of policymakers' minds in Europe, with the continent facing a crippling recession and still unable to agree on the terms of its massive package to help the most-affected countries. In a heartfelt speech, EU Council President Charles Michel reminded the bloc's 27 leaders of the devastating human cost of the pandemic -- 600,000 dead including 200,000 in Europe -- and urged them to come together to complete a "mission impossible". "The question is this: are the 27 leaders, responsible for the people of Europe, capable of building European unity and trust?" Michel said. "Or will we present the face of a weak Europe, undermined by mistrust?"

The summit was supposed to frame the terms of the rescue deal but a handful of countries led by the Netherlands are reluctant to hand over such vast sums to nations they regard as profligate -- particularly Spain and Italy. There was disunity, too, on the fringes of the EU, with Britain and Russia renewing their feud over Moscow's alleged spying on British scientists. "We're absolutely confident that the Russian intelligence agencies were engaged in a cyberattack on research and development efforts in organizations in this country," said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, echoing accusations made by several countries earlier this week. Russia's London ambassador dismissed the claim, saying "there is no sense in it", adding: "In this world, to attribute any kind of computer hackers to any country, it is impossible."