EU leaders pledged Thursday night to step up cooperation on every aspect of their fight against the coronavirus — by keeping borders open, improving testing and contact tracing, monitoring critical care capacity and arranging cross-border patient transfers if necessary, and developing plans for the swift manufacture and distribution of vaccines.
During a roughly three-hour videoconference, the 27 heads of state and government, and the presidents of the Commission and Council, also conferred about pandemic “fatigue” as citizens grow increasingly sick and tired of the world being ill or at risk. Some leaders seemed sick and tired of it all themselves.
But overall, even as they acknowledged clear failures in the early months of the outbreak as well as in preventing a second wave of infections, the leaders voiced determination and seemed prepared to hunker down for a months-long fight. And they urged the EU’s 440 million citizens to do their part amid renewed lockdowns, curfews and other containment measures.
“I want to stress that I understand how tired and worried everyone is,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference following the leaders’ call. “We are all wondering when we will come out of this crisis. But now is the time for patience, for determination and for discipline from all of us, from governments right down to each of us individually.”
Von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel laid out an array of steps political leaders planned to take in coming months, including faster and more consistent testing; wider use of digital contact tracing and better interfacing of the different national apps; improved data sharing especially on hospital critical care capacity; a knowledge base to connect national scientific experts; expanded coordination to keep cargo moving on roads, at sea and in the air; and development and coordination of national vaccine strategies.
But the leaders also conceded that much was outside of their control — and in the hands of the citizens they serve.
“All the public policies I have described are important,” von der Leyen said. “But the most important thing is to adopt and to maintain the right safety habits, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our friends and for our colleagues. Wear a mask, avoid crowds, avoid close contacts and avoid closed spaces with poor ventilation. That is key.”
The leaders convened against the somber backdrop of renewed lockdown measures in many countries, including Germany and France, as well as in the macabre shadow of a terror attack in Nice, France, in which three people were killed on Thursday, just days after a teacher was beheaded in a Paris suburb. The leaders started their meeting by issuing a statement condemning the attacks.
Merkel talks tough
Officials who monitored the leaders’ discussion said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was especially forceful in declaring the importance of tough containment measures, and particularly blunt in acknowledging the failure of leaders to act quickly enough to stop the second wave of infections.
Citing specific data on how infections rise exponentially, Merkel warned her colleagues the autumn and winter would be more difficult than the first wave last spring and emphasized the need for “stringent measures” despite the political difficulties.
She described Germany’s current lockdown measures, saying, “We should have done it earlier.” And she also stressed the urgent need to reach a deal with the European Parliament to enact the historic €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery package leaders agreed back in July.
The legal authority over health policy remains almost entirely in the national capitals — a reality that vexed Brussels in trying to coordinate the initial response to the pandemic last spring. But with the surge in infections, EU and national leaders seem to be reaching an accommodation, recognizing they have no choice but to fight together for citizens’ health and their own political survival.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the main impetus still needed to come from national governments.
“The urgency really has to come from the member states,” Rutte said. “In the Netherlands, we have to do here what’s necessary to fight the virus. That’s really a national affair. In fighting the epidemiological and virological crisis, Europe has no additional value.”
Still, Rutte said there was value in coordination. “How you are testing, how are you ensuring that your tests are accepted beyond the borders, how are you dealing with quarantine requirements,” he said. “How are you ensuring more coordination, which regions are defined as yellow or red — on all these issues, there it’s enormously helpful if you are coordinating.”
Some leaders have gone from over-confident to particularly contrite after clearly misjudging or mishandling the pandemic. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, for instance, has apologized repeatedly in recent days as his country has experienced the worst outbreak of the second wave.
Many leaders are under severe pressure to get the health situation under control, and several like Babiš and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez quickly posted tweets highlighting their participation in the videoconference and the plans for better coordination.
In one sign of how the virus has hit close to home for the leaders, Council Secretary General Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, who organizes their summits, returned to work this week, eight days after testing positive for the coronavirus. Tranholm-Mikkelsen had not shown symptoms and received medical clearance after fulfilling Belgium’s isolation requirement. In a video released by the Council, he could be seen wearing a mask and sitting a safe distance from Michel as they prepared for the start of the leaders’ call.
Unlike in the spring, when national governments closed borders and hoarded protective equipment, the leaders now have pledged to keep the EU’s own borders open, and to be sure the single economic market functions smoothly by guaranteeing the movement of cargo.
Von der Leyen announced the Commission was prepared to allocate €220 million for the cross-border transfer of coronavirus patients should hospitals in some countries become overwhelmed, but she reminded leaders they needed to supply the Commission with reliable data in order to make the system function.
And she said the Commission would respond to a request for sharing expert recommendations from scientists. “This way we will learn from each other what works,” she said. “And we will avoid conflicting or confusing messages.”