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EU leaders to talk pandemic, defense policy in video summit

EU heads of state and government will use a video summit on Thursday to discuss steps to speed regulatory approval and production of coronavirus vaccines, European Council President Charles Michel said.

“Our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” Michel wrote to the 27 national leaders in his summit invitation letter. “It remains challenging due to the emergence of new variants and the need to strike the right balance between restrictions and the smooth flow of goods and services in the single market.”

He added: “Our priority continues to be to speed up vaccinations across the EU. This means accelerating the authorization process of vaccines, as well as their production and delivery.”

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Michel’s letter underscored the growing impatience among European Council leaders over the EU’s relatively slow rollout of vaccinations. While the leaders have expressed broad support for the Commission’s joint vaccine purchasing program — which ensured equal access for all 27 countries, regardless of size — they have also voiced dismay over production shortfalls and other stumbles that have left the bloc trailing countries like the U.K. and U.S. in vaccinating citizens.

In addition to pushing manufacturers to increase production, Michel said that leaders would discuss controversial border restrictions imposed by some countries. But his letter only hinted at what is certain to be a difficult conversation.

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“Restrictive measures on non-essential travel may still be needed to contain the spread of the virus,” Michel wrote. Nevertheless, the flow of goods and services in the single market, as well as the role played by the green lanes, remain essential.” He did not specifically address some border controls by countries including Germany and Belgium that clash with leaders’ previous commitments to coordinate such measures.

Leaders are also expected to discuss international efforts to supply vaccines to developing countries, as well as a common approach to “vaccination certificates” as both a medical record and, potentially, a travel document.

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On Friday, the leaders will convene for a second videoconference in which they will discuss security and defense issues, and will hear presentations by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, including on cyber-attacks and hybrid threats.

The Friday session will also include a discussion on relations with the EU’s “southern neighborhood” — a reference to countries in North Africa and the Middle East.