On the one hand, the leaders of the 27 and the European Commission insist on the fact that it is important to keep the internal borders of the Union open to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market. “The lessons of the past have been learned”, assured the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, during the press conference which followed the meeting. There was no longer any question of ending up in the chaotic situation of the first wave, when several Member States unilaterally decided to close their borders, which seriously disrupted the movement of goods, but also of essential cross-border workers – a disaster for a country such as Luxembourg, whose economy is very dependent on those who come daily from Belgium, France or Germany to work in the Grand Duchy. On the other hand, added the same Charles Michel, everyone is well aware of the seriousness of the health situation, increased by the spread of new variants of Covid-19. And therefore everyone agrees on the “indispensable nature of restrictive measures which must be maintained, or even in certain cases adapted or reinforced”. To put it more simply: Member States are encouraged to take measures to reduce the free movement of persons as much as possible. “Non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged”, not only from one Member State to another, but also within EU countries, insisted Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Everyone does what they think is necessary, but coordination is desired
To identify high-risk areas, the Commission proposes to refine the tricolor mapping (red, orange, green) currently used by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to define the contamination rate of European regions and add color “dark red” to identify “those where the virus circulates very quickly“, said Ursula von der Leyen. People from these regions could be imposed a test before their departure, and quarantine on arrival, says the German. The measure would also apply to travelers from from third countries. The Commission may suggest, but in the end, “decision [concernant les mesures à prendre] up to the Member States, but it is better to have coordination “, added the president.
Belgium is arguing for a ban on non-essential travel, an idea that has the support of countries like Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, Finland or the Netherlands. The measure will be the subject of discussion at Belgian level this Friday between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the executives of the federated entities. French President Macron for his part indicated that from Sunday, France will systematically demand the presentation of proof of a negative PCR test of less than 72 hours for travelers from another EU country. – frontier workers and land carriers will be exempt. The Netherlands has banned flights from the UK, Latin America and South America.
More sequencing of positive tests
The coordination of the European fight against the pandemic goes well beyond the question of borders. Thus, the 27 have also agreed that it is necessary to increase the percentage of sequencing of positive tests, in order to be able to determine more precisely the presence of variants of the new coronavirus in the EU and their spread. Currently only 1% of positive tests are sequenced in Member States (with the exception of two countries, which reach 10%). The Commission sets the bar at a minimum of 5%, below which it is impossible to see clearly.
The leaders also called for the vaccination process to be speeded up – the Commission would like 80% of those over 80 and healthcare workers to be vaccinated by March, and 70% of the adult population by the end of summer . “Vaccines must be distributed at the same time” in the Member States “in proportion to the population”, insisted Charles Michel, calling on pharmaceutical companies “to keep their commitments” – the vaccine developed by the American Pfizer and the German BioNtech shows delivery delays.
Launched by Greece and supported by the countries of the south of the Union, whose economy depends a lot on tourism, the idea of a vaccination certificate is gaining ground, but is still far from being realized. The Union is working on developing a standardized form, based on the World Health Organization’s vaccination record, but the discussion on the use of this certificate, as a passport for example, is not ripe. . Many questions remain unanswered, stressed Ursula von der Leyen: It is not known whether vaccinated people still transmit the virus, for example. “How do we ensure respect for the rights of those who have not had access to vaccines and what are the alternatives for those who have legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated” asked the President of the Commission.
A problem to be solved at the global level
Finally, in the context of the pandemic, the EU cannot worry about its own case and show solidarity with the poorest countries, which do not have the same capacity to acquire doses of vaccines. The Union has invested 500 million euros in the global Covax initiative, which has pre-ordered two billion doses, intended for countries in the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific region, Asia, South America and even South America. east of the European continent. “To defeat this pandemic, we must defeat it in Europe, but also outside”, recalled Charles Michel. This is also the case for European positioning on the world stage, where “vaccine diplomacy” is played out, in which the Russians and the Chinese participate in particular. However, due to the race for vaccines, and the resulting stockouts, Covax can currently only fulfill its distribution mission in small quantities. In a few months, the EU will have more doses of vaccines than it needs, assures Von der Leyen, who suggests that the Union complement Covax’s action by distributing vaccines through its own mechanism. “It is also a question of self-interest”, justifies the President of the Commission. “The longer the virus circulates in the world, the more it is likely to mutate and threaten our health”.