Riron? Please do not! Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, would have liked to host the summit organized by his staff in Brussels. But Merkel, Macron and the other heads of state and government declined with thanks. Too often, in the past few months, she and other top politicians have had to be quarantined after the rare personal meetings or even contracted Covid-19.
And so the group of the highest European decision-makers, who now even meet monthly in pandemic times, met via video. “It was a good discussion,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) afterwards. If you consider that Europe did not even deal with the pandemic many months ago, then there has been a lot of progress.
So better than nothing – that was probably just a slip of the tongue after a long video evening. In any case, it cannot be the yardstick that people apply to European politics after more than a year of the corona pandemic. And so the video session, which lasted several hours, was mainly about the issues that concern Europe’s citizens: the progress of the vaccination campaign and the prospects for summer vacation.
The sensitive issue of corona certificates and travel was only a brief item at the end of the agenda, but a group of member states whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism had already made it very clear in the run-up to the meeting that this issue was their top priority.
Greece and Cyprus had already built up pressure in advance. You have agreed a vaccination corridor with Israel and are also negotiating, of all places, with the Brexit country Great Britain about making travel easier for the summer. Vaccinated people from these countries should be able to travel to Greece and Cyprus in the summer with the appropriate certificates. The message from southern Europe and, most recently, from Austria to Germany and France: Our tourism companies are fighting for their existence and need a perspective for the summer.
They got it now. And with the prospect of a new European promise: In a few months the infrastructure will be in place to link the national vaccination certificates, which are currently being developed across Europe, promised Von der Leyen. This would make travel possible.
The project is undisputed, even if it sometimes appeared different before the summit: the Member States and the Commission have already agreed on which data should be required for the certificate. A Covid vaccination should be noted there, as well as a negative PCR test or an immunity proven by antibodies after surviving Covid disease.
“Very simple information that is relevant to travel across borders,” said von der Leyen. As long as not every EU citizen has the opportunity to be vaccinated, permission to travel cannot only be made dependent on the vaccination. Other options such as PCR tests or rapid antigen tests should also enable travel.
Now, however, the member states have to develop their national corona certificates and equip their health and border systems accordingly. Many countries have already started. Others, however, not yet and it is completely unclear whether the national certificates for the holiday season are ready. “The member states have to hurry so that the technology is up and running by summer,” warned von der Leyen. The Commission will coordinate the standards and develop the infrastructure for the exchange.
And then von der Leyen decided when it would be time – at least a little: “It will take a while; at least around three months. “
“At least”, “around” – a firm promise sounds different. But Angela Merkel, who had given a press conference in Berlin a few minutes earlier, did that for them about 650 kilometers away. “The Commission needs about three months to create the appropriate conditions,” declared the Chancellor. “And that is the duration that the Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn also specifies for the development of such a project.” And that made it clear who she sees responsibility for the new EU project – and who doesn’t.
It is the next big European promise to the citizens and this time the EU and the Member States must do everything in their power to keep it. The last big commitments at EU level ended in disappointments and mutual recriminations between the capitals and Brussels.
The linking of the European Corona apps, for example, is half finished at best. This is mainly due to the member states, which seemingly unaffected by the constraints of European geography and integration have largely autonomously developed their respective corona warning apps.
The subsequent European merger of the various systems, which was announced as a major project by the Commission, came much too late for the summer holidays last year and to date only 15 out of 27 EU countries have taken part in the joint European risk assessment. France, one of the largest EU members and in a central position on the continent with five neighboring countries, will probably remain outside in the foreseeable future, because the data is stored centrally there, unlike in other countries.
The fate of the vaccination promise is even more present: the slow and unnecessarily bumpy start of the vaccination campaign has disappointed many Europeans. For smaller and poorer EU countries, the joint European order was a blessing, as is shown by the reports on moon prices that poor developing countries with less bargaining power are supposed to pay for vaccine doses. Even so, many Europeans are stunned that other countries are vaccinating at a much faster pace.
The European decision-makers backed von der Leyen after the criticism of the past weeks at the summit and welcomed their new task force headed by French Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, which is supposed to ensure more production capacities. Nevertheless, the heads of government asked the President of the Commission critical questions: They wanted to know why Europe is still struggling with vaccination problems. How more and faster vaccine could be produced and what could be done to make deliveries more predictable.
Von der Leyen was also able to report to the group that the vaccinations are going ahead: They are confident that by the end of the summer, as promised, 255 million Europeans or 70 percent of the adult population could be vaccinated. According to the Commission, vaccine manufacturers will have shipped 51.5 million doses of vaccine in the EU by the end of the week. A good 29 million of them have already been vaccinated and a total of five percent of the adult population have already received their first vaccination; three percent even the second.
It might not be the last for many Europeans. In Brussels and the national capitals, politicians are now assuming that the world will have to live with Corona for many years to come. Because of the mutations, it could be that “we always have to be able to vaccinate over long years,” said Merkel. For this, too, the EU wants to expand production capacities in the coming months.