BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The resurgent coronavirus disrupted the EU leaders’ summit, only their third face-to-face meeting since the pandemic began, with the EU’s chief executive and Finland’s prime minister dropping out after coming near people who later tested positive.
A European Union diplomat said this week’s meeting was likely to be “the last physical gathering of EU leaders for a while” as the second wave of COVID-19 brings record daily infections and forces governments to restrict lives again.
“I do not think anyone can be absolutely sure on when we will be able to all meet together,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Europe’s economy is in its worst-ever recession after spring lockdowns hit travel and tourism, and with leaders still struggling to agree a common approach to tackling the pandemic, businesses are again fretting about their futures.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen abruptly left the two-day summit less than an hour after it started on Thursday, followed by Finnish premier Sanna Marin on Friday.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was not present either as he was self-isolating in Warsaw even before the talks, at which leaders wore face masks and kept their distance.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had said on arriving in Brussels that the summit “should be held as a video conference … instead of meeting physically”.
Leaders agreed to hold video calls to coordinate measures to combat the pandemic among the bloc’s 27 countries.
“There was an agreement that we would, almost weekly now, engage in consultation with each other in terms of best methods and the best approaches to deal with this second wave,” said Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin.
Virtual conferences are less effective for agreeing complex compromises but safer than in-person meetings that increase the risks of infection among EU leaders and their staff.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the regular calls would help coordinate moves on tracing, restrictive measures, vaccines and therapies.
The EU’s 27 nations fought COVID-19 with different, sometimes contradictory measures in the first months of the pandemic and often clashed over travel restrictions or access to medical supplies.
They have since committed to joint vaccine procurement and agreed shared criteria to assess the situation in any specific country so that it is easier to make comparisons and stage a common fight against the virus.
But measures still differ between countries, including quarantine length for those who have been in contact with infected people, which was 14 days across the bloc until a few weeks ago, when some countries began cutting it.
Some EU countries have now switched schools and universities back to online learning and some tell people to wear face masks including on the streets — while others require neither. Testing levels also vary widely.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio, Gabriela Baczynska and Kate Abnett, Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Catherine Evans)