Misc 21/01/2021

EU fears new border chaos due to new variants

The 27 seek to accelerate vaccination but there is no consensus on creating an immunity 'passport'

Júlia Manresa Nogueras
4 min
La presidenta de la Comissió Europea, Ursula von der Leyen; el president del Parlament Europeu, David Sassoli, i el president portuguès, António Costa.

BrusselsThe third wave of the coronavirus has arrived with a few added problems, although the vaccine has not yet been administered to even 1% of the population. The new variants of the coronavirus, at least the British one, which has been shown to be more contagious, have led to a tightening of mobility restrictions in certain European countries, causing EU institutions to once again fear a chain of unilateral border closures. "Normally we are against any restriction of free movement, but we have to analyse it, because [without the restrictions] we can put even more pressure on our health system", a European diplomatic source confessed yesterday.

Just yesterday the Netherlands announced tighter restrictions directly linked to the new variant of the coronavirus. Citizens are directly advised not to leave the country. A curfew has been set at half past eight in the evening and travel bans have been extended to people from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and other Latin American countries. In addition, quarantine measures are tightened for all travellers arriving in the country, and for travellers from outside the EU, exemptions are removed and students, professionals or researchers, hitherto exempted from the ban, are prevented from entering. A ban on non-essential travel is also on the table in Belgium, according to media reports such as Le Soir yesterday, in a decision which is due to be finalised on Friday.

If other European countries follow Belgium's lead, the situation will revert to the first wave, when the Schengen area of free movement was completely fragmented, with the vast majority of flights cancelled and airports empty. "Travel bans or flight suspensions are unjustified and very disruptive", European Lifestyle Promotion Commissioner Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday. But Brussels already found itself alone in demanding not to close borders during the first wave because the powers in this area are absolutely state-run.

This is why this is one of the main issues that should be addressed this Thursday afternoon by the EU's heads of state and government at a new video summit to discuss coordination in the face of the pandemic. "One of the main objectives of the meeting is to raise awareness of the need for coordination. It is important to identify the risks of the variants to see what restriction measures we have to apply, but we must remember that they are the competence of the states", a high community source said yesterday.

In the midst of the vaccination campaign, several voices have called for speeding up the distribution and process of vaccination everywhere, taking into account the devastating consequences that the virus is having on European citizens, their health systems, and the economy.

That is why, before the video call, the European Commission presented on Tuesday to the 27 the proposal to commit to having 70% of the adult population immunized by summer. According to the EU government, 80% of the population over 80 years old and also of health workers would have to be vaccinated in March, with the final goal of having seven out of ten people immunized between June and August. The heads of state and government will have to decide this afternoon whether they are able to go along with this commitment, despite the fact that there is already scepticism. European sources did not dare to assure yesterday that the targets are achievable, and one diplomatic source directly considered it "unachievable" as an overall objective for the whole EU: "The Commission suggests that we should reach 70% vaccination of the adult population before the summer, but each state has its own systems, and even within the same countries there are differences. Brussels wants to set an ambitious target and we will try to achieve it, but in the end it is up to each ministry to set its own pace".

Finally, the other major topic of discussion is the creation of a European vaccination certificate that would allow recognition between countries of the fact that someone has been vaccinated. The proposal came from Greece, which is particularly interested in using it as a passport to save the tourist season, but there are other countries that consider it premature and are simply open to studying it as a medical certificate and not for access to services or to facilitate travel, because it has not yet been proven that being vaccinated guarantees that the virus will not be transmitted. European sources confirm that a sufficient percentage of the population would need to be immunized in order to open the door to convert the certificate into a vaccination passport. On the table there is also the question of whether citizens who have received vaccines other than those approved by the EU will be able to have this document.

The EU welcomes the "return" of the US with the arrival of Biden

When Joe Biden's victory in the US elections was officially announced, the main voices of the European Union, heads of state and government, leaders of institutions and ministers added to the avalanche of congratulations and hopeful messages on social networks. The same thing happened on Thursday when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated the "return" of the US, in a speech to the EP, offering Biden a "refounding" of transatlantic relations, which had been severely damaged by Trump. In the same vein, European Council President Charles Michel and Parliament's David Sassoli saw Biden's victory as a "new era" in US-EU relations. Hopes are pinned on the need to end the trade war, relaunch NATO and fight climate change. However, a chastened EU has set out to strengthen its autonomy and also that of the euro against the dollar.