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'I will survive': 2020 slinks into history as fireworks light deserted streets

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Fireworks soared into the sky above the Sydney Opera House, but the harbour below was a deserted ghost town, a fittingly creepy send-off for a year that will not be missed. No light show illuminated Beijing from the top of the TV tower. St Peter’s in Rome was almost empty for vespers. London’s Trafalgar Square, Moscow’s Red Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and New York’s Times Square were all barricaded off, write and

Good riddance, 2020. Hello, 2021.

While some cities would launch fireworks over empty streets, others, such as London and Singapore, called off their displays. Paris, Rome and Istanbul were under curfew.

New York’s countdown ball was set to drop on Broadway. But in place of thousands of people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in Times Square, the audience would be a few dozen pre-selected key workers - including nurses, doctors, a grocery store worker and a pizza delivery man - their families kept six feet (2 metres) apart in socially distanced pens.

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Organisers booked Gloria Gaynor to sing her disco classic “I Will Survive”. (Lyrics: “You think I’d crumble? You think I’d lay down and die? Oh no, not I!”)

“It’s going to be actually, arguably, the most special, the most poignant, the most moving New Year’s Eve,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will push the button to start the crystal’s ball descent, told reporters. “In 2021, we’re going to show people what it looks like to recover, to come back.”

With more than 1.7 million people dead and 82 million infected around the globe since last New Year’s Eve - yet hope emerging that new vaccines can help tame the pandemic - the year ended unlike any other in memory.

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Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year’s Eve address as German chancellor, said as much: “I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy. And never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope.”

China’s President Xi Jinping said the year’s extraordinary hardship had allowed people to demonstrate their resilience: “Only in hard times can courage and perseverance be manifested. Only after polishing can a piece of jade be finer.”

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic originated a year ago, large crowds took to the streets including a group of hundreds who gathered in front of the old Hankow Customs House building. When its old clock struck midnight many of them cheered and released balloons into the air.

“I’m so so so incredibly happy,” said 20-year-old student and tourist Yang Wenxuan. “I hope that (in 2021) I can obtain my bachelor degree and I hope I can find a boyfriend.”

There was a heavy police presence and strict crowd control, but the countdown appeared to proceed in a relaxed atmosphere.

In Australia, where Sydney’s fireworks annually serve as the world’s first big visual display of the new year, gatherings were banned and internal borders shut. Most people were barred from the city’s downtown.

“What a hell of a year it’s been,” said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state, which includes Sydney. “Hopefully 2021 will be easier on all of us.”

The virus did not stop North Korea from staging its celebration in Pyongyang. State media showed revellers in face masks filling the main square for a concert and fireworks.

But in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where Spaniards typically count down to midnight by stuffing grapes into their mouths at each clock strike, police put up barriers to keep people out. Jose Angel Balsa, a 61-year-old retiree, said he would spend the evening “with family, just the four of us at home, holding lots of video calls and hoping for this to end as soon as possible.”

In Britain, under ever tighter restrictions to fight a new, more contagious variant of the virus, official billboards instruct the public to “see in the New Year safely at home”.

Italy’s bars and restaurants were closed, and a curfew imposed for 10 p.m.

The rules prevented the traditional assembly of thousands of Roman Catholic worshippers for New Year’s Eve vespers at St Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis cancelled plans to lead the service because of a flare-up of his sciatica, the Vatican said, and a cardinal read the pope’s sermon to a small congregation at a secondary altar.

At “A la Ville de Rodez”, an upmarket delicatessen in Paris, manager Brice Tapon sent customers home with packages of foie gras, truffles and pate for groups of two or three. Rules forbid more than six adults to gather around the dinner table.

One customer, Anne Chaplin, said she would “stuff myself with foie gras, champagne and all this food.”

“And I’ll stay home.”

European Commission

NextGenerationEU: European Commission disburses €231 million in pre-financing to Slovenia

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The European Commission has disbursed €231 million to Slovenia in pre-financing, equivalent to 13% of the country's grant allocation under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The pre-financing payment will help to kick-start the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Slovenia's recovery and resilience plan. The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the implementation of the investments and reforms outlined in Slovenia's recovery and resilience plan.

The country is set to receive €2.5 billion in total, consisting of €1.8bn in grants and €705m in loans, over the lifetime of its plan. Today's disbursement follows the recent successful implementation of the first borrowing operations under NextGenerationEU. By the end of the year, the Commission intends to raise up to a total of €80 billion in long-term funding, to be complemented by short-term EU-Bills, to fund the first planned disbursements to member states under NextGenerationEU.

The RRF is at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across member states. The Slovenian plan is part of the unprecedented EU response to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, fostering the green and digital transitions and strengthening resilience and cohesion in our societies. A press release is available online.

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Cyprus

NextGenerationEU: European Commission disburses €157 million in pre-financing to Cyprus

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The European Commission has disbursed €157 million to Cyprus in pre-financing, equivalent to 13% of the country's financial allocation under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The pre-financing payment will help to kick-start the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Cyprus' recovery and resilience plan. The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the implementation of the investments and reforms outlined in Cyprus' recovery and resilience plan.

The country is set to receive €1.2 billion in total over the lifetime of its plan, with €1 billion provided in grants and €200m in loans. Today's disbursement follows the recent successful implementation of the first borrowing operations under NextGenerationEU. By the end of the year, the Commission intends to raise up to a total of €80bn in long-term funding, to be complemented by short-term EU-Bills, to fund the first planned disbursements to member states under NextGenerationEU. Part of NextGenerationEU, the RRF will provide €723.8bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across member states.

The Cypriot plan is part of the unprecedented EU response to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, fostering the green and digital transitions and strengthening resilience and cohesion in our societies. A press release is available online.

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Belgium

EU Cohesion policy: Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy receive €373 million to support health and social services, SMEs and social inclusion

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The Commission has granted €373 million to five European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) operational programmes (OPs) in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy to help the countries with coronavirus emergency response and repair in the framework of REACT-EU. In Belgium, the modification of the Wallonia OP will make available an additional €64.8m for the acquisition of medical equipment for health services and innovation.

The funds will support small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in developing e-commerce, cybersecurity, websites and online stores, as well as the regional green economy through energy efficiency, protection of the environment, development of smart cities and low-carbon public infrastructures. In Germany, in the Federal State of Hessen, €55.4m will support health-related research infrastructure, diagnostic capacity and innovation in universities and other research institutions as well as research, development and innovation investments in the fields of climate and sustainable development. This amendment will also provide support to SMEs and funds for start-ups through an investment fund.

In Sachsen-Anhalt, €75.7m will facilitate cooperation of SMEs and institutions in research, development and innovation, and provide investments and working capital for micro-enterprises affected by the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the funds will allow investments in the energy efficiency of enterprises, support digital innovation in SMEs and acquiring digital equipment for schools and cultural institutions. In Italy, the national OP ‘Social Inclusion' will receive €90m to promote the social integration of people experiencing severe material deprivation, homelessness or extreme marginalisation, through ‘Housing First' services that combine the provision of immediate housing with enabling social and employment services.

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In Spain, €87m will be added to the ESF OP for Castilla y León to support the self-employed and workers who had their contracts suspended or reduced due to the crisis. The money will also help hard-hit companies avoid layoffs, especially in the tourism sector. Finally, the funds are needed to allow essential social services to continue in a safe way and to ensure educational continuity throughout the pandemic by hiring additional staff.

REACT-EU is part of NextGenerationEU and provides €50.6bn additional funding (in current prices) to Cohesion policy programmes over the course of 2021 and 2022. Measures focus on supporting labour market resilience, jobs, SMEs and low-income families, as well as setting future-proof foundations for the green and digital transitions and a sustainable socio-economic recovery.

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