Italy medical staff
Medical staff from a hospital in Cremona hold hands as they show support for people affected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19): victims, their families and those in recovery, in Cremona, Italy April 6, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Brussels: A blistering row erupted Wednesday after the head of the EU’s top science funding agency resigned and attacked the bloc’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Mauro Ferrari quit as president of the European Research Council (ERC) after just three months, telling the Financial Times he was “extremely disappointed” by the EU’s response to the pandemic, which has hit Italy and Spain particularly hard.

The ERC hit back with a lengthy statement accusing Ferrari of being “economical with the truth” and lambasting him for not showing proper commitment to the job.

The row is the latest example of in-house bickering to mar EU efforts to manage a coordinated Europe-wide response to the crisis, which has killed thousands and crippled the continent’s economy.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Ferrari said he had joined the ERC as a “fervent supporter” of the EU, but his battles with its bureaucratic approach to coronavirus had changed his mind.

He complained that the strategy he had proposed to fight the virus had been unanimously rejected by the ERC’s scientific council because it went against the agency’s usual way of working.

In response, the scientific council said its 19 members had already voted to demand that Ferrari quit nearly two weeks ago in a unanimous vote of no confidence.

'Failed to grasp purpose'

They accused him of approaching the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive, with ideas behind their back, and of failing even to grasp the purpose of the organisation he led.

“Since his appointment, Professor Ferrari displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the USA,” the statement said.

Responding to Ferrari’s complaints about the approach to coronavirus, the council said they rejected his initiative because it lay outside their remit and similar work was already under way through “the appropriate channels”.

“We regret Professor Ferrari’s statement (to the Financial Times), which at best is economical with the truth,” the statement said.

The ERC, set up in 2007, is the first Europe-wide funding agency for cutting edge research, with a budget of over two billion euros (Dh8 billion) in 2019.

A spokesman for the commission, which oversees the ERC, confirmed Ferrari had resigned with immediate effect on Tuesday.

“The Commission regrets the resignation of Professor Ferrari at this early stage in his mandate, and at these times of unprecedented crisis in which the role of EU research is key,” the spokesman said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 750,000 people in Europe, killing nearly 60,000.

Yet the EU has struggled to organise a coordinated response, with national governments pursuing their own interests.

A bid to craft a financial rescue package for hard-hit countries collapsed in acrimony on Wednesday as the Netherlands blocked a deal over bailout conditions.