The European Council’s virtual meeting: The first day focused on the fight against the pandemic
At the start of their virtual meeting the heads of state and government discussed the current situation. Infection rates in many member states remain high. In the light of the virus variants circulating in the United Kingdom in particular some member states found themselves in a difficult position and were extremely cautious when it came to strategies for lifting restrictions, the Federal Chancellor said following the video conference on Thursday evening.
Producing more vaccines
The key issue of the day was the use and manufacture of vaccines. The vaccination campaign had got off to a slow start, said Merkel. She had pointed out that logistical plans needed to be drawn up within the space of only a few weeks so as to be able to actually inoculate people with those vaccines which were available.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had informed the heads of state and government about the quantities of vaccine which had been promised by manufacturers, said the Federal Chancellor. Owing to possible new virus variants, member states needed to be prepared to carry out coronavirus immunisations for years to come, in the same way as they did against influenza.
Angela Merkel went on to explain that the European Commission had set up a Task Force headed by EU Commissioner Thierry Breton. It would be finding out “how production capacities along the entire supply chain could be established within the EU so as to be able to produce the vaccines here,” Merkel added.
The EU also had plans to create the “HERA Incubator”. It will bring together research, industry and public authorities so as to provide a swift response to challenges faced. Over the next few months the Commission will be developing an institutional model. All the heads of state and government supported these plans, Merkel said.
Maintaining the Single Market as far as possible
In the light of the virus variants which are currently circulating, the heads of state and government also discussed travel restrictions and border controls. Germany as well as other member states had taken these measures in order to stop the spread of the virus variants across those border regions which had high rates of infection.
“I explained that Germany – although we are not alone here – would, in certain situations, be forced to reintroduce certain restrictions in the case of either high incidence rates or regions with virus variants,” Angela Merkel said. But the Federal Government was doing everything it could to enable the free movement of goods, she went on, and to ensure that commuters, for instance, could get still to work by means of testing.
Digital vaccination certificate
The European Council also discussed the EU-wide introduction of a digital vaccination certificate. “We are all agreed that we need one,” the Federal Chancellor said.
Merkel said that, within the next three months, the EU member states will have developed digital vaccination certificates and the Commission will have created the technical conditions necessary. These vaccination certificates would be interoperable, Angela Merkel explained, via a gateway at EU level. “That will make travel within the European Union possible by having more information,” Merkel said, and it would perhaps also become the basis for allowing third-country nationals to enter the European Union.
The governments of the 27 member states had been in agreement that, given the current low level of vaccination, such a vaccination passport was not yet relevant. But one needed to be prepared, Merkel said. In addition, the vaccination passport could not be the only measure to determine who would be able to travel. Tests could also contribute to that, she added.
Security and defence
The meeting of the heads of state and government will continue on Friday morning. In a video conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg they will again discuss cooperation between the EU and NATO.
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, will then join the meeting and give an update on work on the Strategic Compass. This initiative provides the framework for the EU’s future defence and security actions.
The heads of state and government will, further, be discussing how to enhance the EU’s effectiveness – especially against cyberattacks and hybrid threats.
The leaders of the EU member states will also discuss relations with its Southern Neighbourhood. Discussions on Friday will build on the conclusions of the European Council which were adopted in December 2020.