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As EU heads of state and government convene by videoconference on Thursday afternoon, they are under severe pressure to show concrete progress in managing the pandemic — and many are looking to the European Commission for answers.
But Brussels has no major breakthroughs to report, according to senior officials and diplomats.
Vaccine distribution remains slow. COVID variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil are spreading across the EU. And several capitals have once again unilaterally shut their borders, posing a threat to commerce and drawing a written reprimand from Brussels.
During the European Council summit, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to tell the 27 heads of state or government that a new task force has identified potential locations that can be used to ramp up vaccine manufacturing, but those increases are not expected for months. Efforts to increase the sequencing of virus samples to detect more contagious, and potentially deadly, mutations are also slow-going.
And plans to speed up regulatory approval are expected to fully kick in only next autumn for a second generation of vaccines targeting new variants. Meanwhile, the Commission is still in the relatively early stages of working with capitals to standardize a so-called “vaccine passport” — a medical record that Greece and other Southern European countries would like to use in clearing passengers for travel, especially to provide some relief for the suffering tourist industry.
While officials and diplomats insist that cooperation among EU countries is much better than at the start of the pandemic a full year ago, Thursday’s summit seems unlikely to yield any deliverables that the leaders can take home to their constituents. Germany, the EU’s biggest and most influential member, imposed some of the toughest border closures, setting an example that some officials fear will be copied across the bloc.
“On the coordination, it’s a real difficult matter and we are walking on thin ice on this,” a senior official conceded on Wednesday. “Because leaders’ main focus is to do the best for their population and the way you do that is subject to differences in member states.”
Still, the official said the situation was better than a year ago, and that the stress on leaders was understandable. “This is an unprecedented crisis,” the official said, “and everybody has suffered from this.”
Several officials attributed the tightening of border restrictions to the arrival of faster-spreading COVID variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.
Leaders are focused most intensely on the question of when vaccines will be available on a wide scale, but von der Leyen is expected to have only limited good news after the recent announcements of production shortfalls. She will say that deliveries are steadily increasing and a goal of vaccinating 70 percent of EU residents by end of the summer remains in place.
But with some countries like the Czech Republic facing a brutal and still ongoing second wave of infections, and an acute shortage of critical care hospital beds, there is little quick relief on the horizon.
Leaders want “to listen to the president of the Commission, on where we stand with the vaccines,” a senior diplomat said Wednesday. “Everybody will like to get more vaccines faster but you know this is not the case. We have difficulties and not only us in Europe. It’s a worldwide issue to get all the stuff that we need to make the vaccines. That’s an issue. And then we have the production number.”
The senior diplomat urged countries to show restraint in closing borders, given the potential disruption to the EU’s single market. “We have to make sure that freedom of movement of goods is unhampered and even if there are national measures taken here and there,” the senior diplomat said.
Officials said that during pre-summit consultations with European Council President Charles Michel, some EU leaders had demanded further clarification about the effectiveness of the vaccine made by Oxford/AstraZeneca, given doubts raised by French President Emmanuel Macron, among others. The Commission, citing guidance from the European Medicines Agency, has insisted the vaccine is effective and safe to use.
Michel has made clear that leaders want assurances that the Commission is maintaining maximum pressure on vaccine manufacturers to fulfill their contractual commitments. Von der Leyen is expected to confirm that is indeed the case, citing work by a new task force led by Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. But the progress made by Breton’s task force is likely to offer little consolation to citizens waiting impatiently for vaccinations.
Despite the continuing shortage of vaccines, the senior official said the EU leaders would issue a statement recommitting their pledge to help developing nations procure vaccines.
“We are at an early stage when it comes to vaccination in member states,” the official said. “But many leaders have expressed a strong will to proceed with international solidarity.”
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