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Over 4,000 stranded EU citizens have been brought back on 25 flights facilitated by Brussels and 3.5m face masks delivered, or about to be, to Italy from Germany, France and Austria, said the European Commission as it seeks to counter the perception of a lack of solidarity among its members during the Covid-19 pandemic.

These gestures featured in a three-page document published on Monday by Brussels. Entitled “European solidarity in action,” the document intends to show how EU states are “stretching out a helping hand” to their neighbours.

The publication comes after some countries — including France and Germany — relaxed export restrictions on protective equipment in reaction to an outcry from Italy and elsewhere, with China apparently moving to fill the gap. The lack of co-ordination in the economic response to the crisis, laid bare during an inconclusive and at times bad-tempered teleconference between EU leaders last week, has fuelled criticism from Eurosceptics that EU collaboration tends to dissolve in crises.

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, from the Centre for European Reform think-tank, said the EU needed to make up for an initial “chaotic and unco-ordinated” pandemic response in which some member states “showed a lack of solidarity with Italy”, Europe’s worst-affected country.

“This has created an opportunity for Eurosceptics to reinforce their narrative of the EU doing too little too late,” she said. “It has also offered an opportunity for third countries to fill the gap.”

China has won thanks from Brussels and EU member states for offering or arranging shipments that include a cargo of of 2.2m masks and 50,000 Covid-19 testing kits. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, blogged last week that the pandemic had spawned a “struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’”, including China “aggressively pushing the message” that it was a “responsible and reliable” partner.

“We don’t want to enter into a competition to say ‘we are doing more than China’,” said one EU official of the bloc’s response. “But it’s important to counteract with examples.”

EU and member state officials insisted that member states were upping their game on co-operation despite the brewing disagreements over the bloc’s economic response.

Germany — which has delivered protective clothing to Switzerland, Austria, Romania and Sweden — has agreed to treat more than 70 seriously ill Covid-19 patients from Italy and more than 50 from France. Luxembourg and Switzerland also took patients from hard-pressed hospitals in Alsace.

The Luftwaffe flew two separate flights of a special Airbus A310 to bring 12 Italians from Bergamo over the weekend. Meanwhile, an A400M military transport plane flew two French intensive care patients from Strasbourg to Stuttgart.

Six Italian patients had previously been brought to the eastern state of Saxony by the Italian air force. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, said the airlifts were an important “sign of solidarity”. “Europe must stick together,” she said. “Of course we stand by our friends.”

President Emmanuel Macron insisted that “France stands by Italy’s side” in dealing the pandemic, shipping medical gowns as well as masks despite being desperately short of equipment for its own cases.

Spain has received 10,000 personal protection kits, including masks, gloves and protective eyewear, from the Czech Republic in response to a request Madrid made last week to a Nato disaster-relief co-ordination centre.

Speaking before the shipment had arrived, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, pleaded for more emergency and economic help from Europe. The coronavirus was “putting the European project to the test” and the EU must not “let down its citizens,” he said.

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Madrid is also looking to China for many of its needs and last week announced a €432m purchase including more than 550m masks, 5.5m quick tests and 950 respirators.

On Sunday, US President Donald Trump said that Washington was sending medical material and funds to Italy and was “working with Spain, too, which is really hit hard”.

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