EU struggles to coordinate pandemic response

This photograph taken on October 6, 2020 shows EU members' flags flying in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg | Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

EU struggles to coordinate pandemic response

Weeks of debate on aligning guidelines for travelers illustrates continuing failure to coordinate national health policies.



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The coronavirus pandemic isn’t waiting for EU capitals to get their act together.

With a second wave of infections surging across Europe, EU member countries have spent more than a month bickering and dithering over a modest European Commission proposal to harmonize travel guidelines, including testing and quarantine recommendations.

The reluctance of national capitals to coordinate relatively simple policies affecting travelers is hardly as problematic as the chaos and havoc of the early days of the pandemic, when EU nations hoarded protective gear and unilaterally shut borders. But the protracted debate illustrates a continued unwillingness to align national policies over which Brussels has no control, even on basic matters such as how long a person should self-isolate for after potential exposure to COVID-19.

On Friday, EU ambassadors are finally expected to vote on a compromise proposal regarding the travel negotiations brokered by the German presidency of the Council of the EU, after weeks of debate over seemingly trivial matters.

Negotiations on the German compromise concluded late Thursday with a slightly adapted text. The points of disagreement had included whether national governments should favor mandatory testing over quarantine for travelers arriving from higher-risk zones — as the Commission originally proposed and the aviation industry has clamored for — or if that decision should be left to national capitals.

The final proposal agreed Thursday expressed no preference for tests, and gave wide discretion to national governments — by urging but not requiring them to cooperate. “Member States should continue coordination efforts on the length of quarantine/self-isolation and substitution possibilities,” it said.

The Commission’s original proposal, put forward on September 4, called for imposing such a requirement only on travelers arriving from zones designated as red, for the highest risk, or gray, indicating a lack of sufficient data. The German presidency proposal would also allow restrictions on travelers arriving from medium-risk orange zones. But people moving between green zones would be assured unrestricted passage.

“What we think is a good idea is for member states to agree among themselves on the proposal which was made by the Commission and that’s what we are going to be focusing our work on,” Christian Wigand, a Commission spokesman, told reporters Thursday.

“We have been pushing for better coordination for months,” he added.

Brussels can claim a role in the debate over travel guidelines given the EU’s legal authority for the single market, and freedom of movement of citizens. But many basic decisions — such as rules on when to wear masks, limits on social gatherings, or whether schools or businesses should close — remain entirely in the hands of national, or even local health authorities.

An EU diplomat insisted capitals were on the same page. “The goal of getting the Council recommendations on COVID-19 coordination in the EU off the ground as quickly as possible is shared by all EU member states. The project is on the right track.”

Privately, Commission officials said that they had hoped for better alignment of national health guidelines but the Commission was powerless without legal authority to impose such rules.

Diplomats insist though that conditions varied so much between countries — including testing capability, testing capacity and economic factors — that it made little sense to try to align national health policies.

Recent debates among ministers meeting within the framework of the EU’s “integrated political crisis response” (IPCR), have only shown the futility of efforts to align national policies.

Last month, for instance, German Health Minister Jens Spahn pushed for consensus on a 10-day quarantine period for travelers returning from a red-zone. He didn’t succeed.

The 10-day proposal didn’t fly with health ministers and the discussion didn’t improve in the IPCR so it was dropped, said a second EU diplomat.

The European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) recommendation is generally for a 14-day quarantine if isolation is necessary, with the period shortened potentially by confirmed negative test results. The Commission, however, has been pushing for a test to replace the need to quarantine. In response, the ECDC has said that replacing quarantine with a single test is scientifically inadvisable, because the virus cannot be detected during incubation.

In recent days top EU officials and the bloc’s institutions have themselves had to grapple with the rules. European Parliament President David Sassoli announced Thursday that he had entered self-isolation after coming into contact with an infected person. His quarantine follows that of both the Commission and Council presidents.

Officials said that adapting the science to reality is ultimately a political decision — which is why achieving consensus among countries is so difficult.

As it stands, the German presidency’s compromise text is expected to be approved on Friday only by a qualified majority of EU ambassadors. Final adoption of the plan is not expected until a meeting of the General Affairs Council next week, meaning it will have taken more than five weeks.

Meanwhile, the second wave continues to grow. When the Commission released its proposal there were around 22,000 daily cases among the EU27. That number is now over 46,000.

Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting. 

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David M. Herszenhorn 


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