Thursday

13th May 2021

EU leaders keep open borders, despite new corona variant risk

  • 'We need to be vigilant to contain as much as possible the new variants of the virus,' said the president of the European Council Charles Michel (Photo: European Union)

EU leaders, on Thursday (21 January), discussed how to tackle the challenges of new variants of Covid-19, which have triggered calls by some member states for tighter travel restrictions.

"We need to be vigilant to contain as much as possible the new variants of the virus," European Council president Charles Michel said after the video-conference.

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"We are fully convinced that we must keep our borders open to maintain the well-functioning of the internal market … [but] new restrictions should be considered for non-essential travel," he added, insisting that this should be done "in a coordinated way".

Member states are expected to strengthen or extend restrictive measures in the next few days, while increasing testing and genome-sequencing efforts.

But they are also expected to steer clear of banning passenger travel between outside countries and the EU - an idea that was first put forward by Germany.

Ahead of the video-summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel had said that "we are in a difficult stage of the pandemic" and the danger posed by the new variant should be taken "very seriously".

Meanwhile, EU leaders also rejected a proposal by Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo, who had called for a temporary ban on all non-essential travel inside Europe.

"When you travel, you often bring the virus with you in your suitcase, and we need to be able to at least temporarily shut that down," he told Belgian broadcaster VRT.

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Thursday that the maps used to determine Covid-19 hotspots would be updated, including new "dark-red" zones.

"Persons travelling from dark-red areas could be required to do a test before departure, as well as to undergo quarantine after arrival," she said.

'Very high risk'

For its part, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency in Sweden, raised the risk associated with new variants from high to "very high" on Thursday, discouraging all non-essential travel.

Given that the new virus strain was estimated to be 50 to 70 percent more contagious, it was "likely to lead to higher hospitalisation and death rates," the EU agency warned.

The dangerous variant, which was first detected in the UK in September 2020, has now been found in at least 60 countries worldwide.

Until now, non-essential travel between the UK and the EU had been strictly limited, party because of an ongoing lockdown in London.

Some member states, such as France and Germany, have imposed quarantine and mandatory testing for travellers coming from Britain, while the Dutch and Portuguese governments have banned all flights from the UK as of Saturday.

EU leaders also discussed a common approach to vaccine certificates, which the commission is expected to put forward before the end of the month.

It would mean, for example, that a vaccine certificate issued after a jab in Belgium would be recognised in Bulgaria.

The debate about vaccine certificates intensified last week, after Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said these certificates could facilitate travel across the bloc, restoring tourism and free movement - an idea also been supported by Malta and Portugal.

Vaccine-passport opposition

So far, the proposal has been opposed by France, which lags behind in the EU's vaccination-rate rankings, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says the impact of vaccines on reducing transmission is still unclear.

Earlier this week, the commission said it is "premature" to use such certificates for other purposes than health protection, while recognising that "an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future".

Von der Leyen said on Thursday that there were still too many open questions, but that a thorough debate on the use of certificates will come "when the time is right".

As of Friday, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain had registered the highest infection rates in Europe.

But member states did agree on a common framework for the use of rapid 'antigen' tests and the mutual recognition of 'PCR' test results across the bloc.

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