There are two ways to tell. The short and simplified summary is that the heads of State and Government of the 27 have seen each other today by teleconference with two problems on the table: the general coordination against Covid and the idea of establishing a vaccination passport to try to save the next tourist season. The longer view, full of cross-variables, presents a half-split Europe, overtaken by the pandemic once again, with the economy suffocated, the third wave out of control and facing the very real possibility of that at any moment border controls within the Schengen area will rise again without any type of coordination.
The videoconference organized by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, is the first of the year, but the ninth since the outbreak of the pandemic. In the past there were never such encounters and now they have become routine, in large part due to the virus and the impossibility of movement, and in part because this is achieving a goal that the predecessor had already envisioned at the time of Michel, Donald Tusk: a European Council that assumes responsibilities, that occupies center stage and that seeks to expeditiously resolve discussions that can become entrenched for months or years when they remain at the level of ministers.
On the agenda: coordination, a heading in which everything fits and which yielded at least one immediate result: the need, rather than the obligation, to discourage and limit non-essential international travel. A week ago the main topic of discussion was the possibility of creating a kind of ‘passport’ or vaccination certificate, some type of document that identifies who has already received the doses of the vaccine (any of them) to facilitate the return from travel, tourism. The formal suggestion left Athens, with a letter from Prime Minister Mitsotakis, and Michel quickly picked up the glove.
The Belgian believes that it is a “pertinent” discussion, necessary and urgent, since Spain, Greece or Italy cannot bear another failed campaign. But in the EU there is anything but consensus on the idea. Denmark is already on it. Spain, like Malta or Cyprus, welcomes the measure. The governments of Poland or Slovenia have sent letters to Brussels also endorsing the initiative and everyone remembers that the idea is not to turn the holiday into a requirement to travel, but ‘guarantee’, as far as possible, that those who are immunized will be able to go on vacation abroad.
France and Romania, However, they have clearly positioned themselves against it, arguing that any type of measure that becomes discriminatory is a mistake, especially considering that vaccination has just started and that it is voluntary in most States. Belgium is skeptical of the danger to individual freedoms. And others, such as the Netherlands, are halfway, more than willing to debate, to listen to proposals, but with many doubts, both sanitary (since there is no guarantee that a vaccinated person cannot infect) and legal, since there is a clear basis for prohibiting travel and free movement for a criterion like that. Not to mention the data protection implications.
The messages that were released show that the council is far away. There is no problem with a certificate, as long as it is considered “a medical document and not a travel document at this time.” It was agreed to keep talking, do some technical work, and see if something is realistic and appropriate in time. The Spanish President, According to Moncloa, “he supports the intensification of work in this regard with a view to its interoperability and its recognition by all countries”, something that is not realistic at the moment. “You have to agree on the elements that this certificate should contain and ultimately see in what circumstances it could be used. Swe are prudent”, explained the President of the European Council at the end of the summit.
“About the certificates, I think there are two issues to differentiate. The first, the documentation itself, which is a medical necessity. There is already a global standard. The second question is what it can be used for and we think it should be considered very carefully. There are many variables, starting with the medical ones, so there is no answer to whether someone vaccinated can infect. And we don’t know how long the vaccine can last. We must also think about how the rights of those who do not have access to the vaccine are respected and what alternatives to offer to those who have legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated. Not to mention data protection. When the time is right, consensus will be needed on the possible uses of this certificate, “decided Ursula von der Leyen in the short term.
At the virtual summit there were calls for mutual recognition of tests and to promote antigen tests. To constant exchanges of information. Nervous questions to the Commission about the schedule for the delivery of new doses and words of goodwill and solidarity with countries that do not have access. The targets were set by Brussels this week: By March 2021, Member States they should have vaccinated a minimum of 80% of health professionals, social care and population over 80 years old. And for summer, to a minimum of 70% of the adult population. Following the ordered distribution with the same criteria as up to now.
But in addition to those issues, and above all, there is concern. LGovernments are getting very nervous about the proliferation of cases and strains hypercontagious, and each wants to move in one direction. The Mediterranean wants to open the doors to tourism as soon as possible, while others, such as Belgium, are now studying to ban it.
Just minutes before leaders turned on the cameras, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention raised the risk alert, because of the different strains identified, and recommended that non-essential trips should not be made. Angela Merkel, while warning the Germans of a “very harsh winter”, pushes discreetly at the possibility of closing internal borders, like last year, to tame the wave. And for this he has circulated a non-paper arguing that outbreaks of these strains are more than justified reasons to cut their losses. As was done with the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. Affecting, even and ultimately, those who want to return to their own country. “We are fully convinced that internal borders must be kept open to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market, but we are also convinced that it can help to limit non-essential travel,” Michel explained at the end.
Meanwhile, others, like Luxembourg, where ironically the Schengen village is, are maneuvering desperately to avoid something that could sink an economy highly dependent on cross-border workers. The European Commission, once again, opposes the idea of closing borders per se, for the sake of the internal market. He believes there is more to lose than can be gained, that Schengen is too precious to make his temporary suspension routine.
But at the same time, given the health reality, everyone believes that measures are needed. The first step has been to establish a ‘dark red’ zone, for regions where indicators are especially bad. And “strongly discourage all non-essential travel”. European leaders have agreed to target additional controls (negative PCR before travel, forced quarantines upon landing, as many countries already request) but there is nothing in common closed. It is up to the countries to make those decisions and although there is more coordination, there is still no definitive consensus.
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