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A diplomatic spat has erupted between Germany and neighbors Switzerland and Austria over a decision last week by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to ban most exports of protective medical equipment.

Switzerland has called in the German ambassador to complain about the decision to block a shipment of 240,000 face masks, while Austria’s economy minister demanded her German counterpart order the release of supplies destined for her country.

The appeals for Germany to be more generous in sharing vital supplies with its neighbors come after it declared an export ban of medical protection gear last week unless for use in aid operations. They also highlight growing tensions among European countries amid a rapidly increasing count of coronavirus cases across the continent.

“It can’t be that Germany is holding back products for Austria just because they happen to be stored in a German location,” Austrian Economy Minister Margarete Schramboeck told reporters in Vienna. “These products are for the Austrian market, and unilateral moves by Germany are just causing problems in other countries.”

Switzerland — a country of 8.5 million which depends on imports of low-value goods such as protective medical gear — wants Germany to release a shipment of face masks held up at the border, Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said in a statement Monday.

The government has sought high-level talks with ministries in Berlin after summoning Germany’s ambassador on Friday.

The Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper reported that a Swiss truck carrying 240,000 face masks had been stopped at the border as the country faces a rapidly declining stock of masks. It also said hospital doctors had been advised to use their masks for eight hours instead of replacing them after two.

Germany’s health minister signaled that Berlin could ease restrictions going forward, particularly to its European partners.

“I take this issue of European solidarity very seriously and am therefore certain there will be authorizations soon to export masks to certain countries,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference in Berlin on Monday. “We’re not categorically against exports but want to understand what happens, because previously it was so that masks went not where they were most needed but where most was paid.”

Austria’s Schramboeck also proposed relocating production of some critical drugs to Europe, with a goal of building up a reserve of 12 months for the most important ones.

The European Commission has set up new regulations under which production for strategically important products such as semiconductors, batteries or drugs can be subsidized to guarantee supply in Europe, she said.

16 Mar, 2020

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