European leaders agreed on Thursday that European Union (EU) countries can restrict non-essential intra-community travel, given the increase in COVID-19 infections due to the appearance of new variants of the virus, although they promised to keep open the internal borders.
“We are fully convinced that we have to keep the borders open to maintain the proper functioning of the internal market” but “restrictions on non-essential movements can be considered”, said the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, at the end of the summit that the Heads of State and Government held by videoconference.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, said that “the new variants are spreading across Europe” and to identify them, the leaders agreed “a new category, dark red” in the map of the EU that “shows that in that area the virus circulates at a very high level. ”
With the intention of “discouraging” non-essential travel in that area, citizens may be required to take a negative test before leaving and the obligation to quarantine in the destination country.
However, these restrictions should not affect cross-border workers, although this and other specific measures, such as whether those travelers who cross a border daily to work should be required to take a test, are aspects that will be discussed “in the next days “, indicated the president of the EC.
Before the start of the meeting, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) already endorsed the restriction of non-essential travel, having raised the risk of contagion of the new strains from “high” to “very high”.
Regarding the external borders of the EU, the European Commission proposed “additional measures” such as that a negative diagnostic test may also be required from those who enter the community space on “essential travel”.
At the end of the telematics summit, the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, announced that his country will suspend all flights with the United Kingdom from 00:00 on Saturday, except for humanitarian reasons.
The Netherlands also decided to suspend flights from the United Kingdom, South America and South Africa for four weeks from Saturday, fearing to import the variants that dominate in those geographical areas.
The acting Dutch government is “very concerned about the spread of variants of the coronavirus that are even more contagious than the virus that we already know” and wants to “delay as much as possible the moment in which these new variants of the virus take over”.
The worsening of the health situation in this third wave, with strong spikes in infections in countries such as Spain or Portugal, has led leaders to once again allow restrictions on non-essential travel, as they already did in spring, but they managed to avoid during the second wave.
However, the objective is not to repeat the blockade of the internal borders that took place in March and April, with trucks stuck without being able to cross.
“This must not happen again,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.
Heads of State and Government also debated the proposal of the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to create a vaccination passport at the community level, with the aim of stimulating tourism and the economy.
However, the idea raises legal and political doubts due to the possibility of limiting the rights of people who do not want or cannot be vaccinated and they limited themselves to accepting the creation of a European medical certificate that helps health authorities to study the evolution of the pandemic.
At the meeting there were “many questions about the transparency and the timing of the supply of the different vaccines,” European sources explained.
European leaders also called for speeding up the vaccination process, in the face of criticism from several countries of the slow distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Von der Leyen presented at the summit his proposal to have vaccinated 70% of the adult population in summer and 80% of health professionals and people over 80 years old in March.
The President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, supported the measure and told his colleagues that “in Spain, vaccination is proceeding at a good pace,” according to sources from Moncloa.
However, Austria, Denmark, Greece and the Czech Republic sent a joint letter to Michel before the meeting, asking him to “send a signal” to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to authorize the marketing of the vaccines as soon as possible.
For now, the EC has only authorized those for Pfize-BioNTech and Moderna and hopes to be able to approve the one for AstraZeneca before February.
During the meeting, the leaders also agreed to supply vaccines to third countries, especially in North Africa and the western Balkans, “as soon as possible,” Von der Leyen said.
The high representative for EU Foreign Policy, Josep Borrel, said that he spoke on Thursday with the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus about the “operationalization” of COVAX, the international alliance that Brussels has promoted to supply vaccines to developing countries.