EU leaders struggle over COVID travel rules
Brussels, Dec 17: The 27 leaders of the European Union have struggled to find a common position on travel restrictions and additional measures to prevent the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
Following a summit in Brussels, they released a statement saying that any new restrictions should be "based on objective criteria and not undermine the functioning of the Single Market or disproportionately hamper free movement between EU member states."
It comes after Italy followed Portugal and Ireland in reimposing rules that insist anyone arriving in their countries must show a negative PCR test, and not only proof of vaccination.
The EU leaders also said they want a "speedy adoption" of plans to limit the validity of the European digital vaccine certificate, also know as the EU Green Pass, to nine months for the first two doses, unless a person receives a booster shot.
The statement said the European Commission "will adopt a delegated act on this issue," but did not specify when that might happen.
ECDC: Vaccines not enough against omicron
The summit ended as alarm bells about the severity of the omicron variant were being rung by the EU's own scientific experts.
On Wednesday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) released a warning saying "evidence to date raises concern that the Omicron VOC [variant] may be associated with a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness."
The ECDC has insisted that vaccines are not enough against omicron, and has backed the reintroduction of measures like restrictions on group gatherings and masks mandates. It has also warned that health systems are likely to see increased pressure.
"Immediate planning should be considered to increase healthcare capacity to treat the expected higher number of cases," said the ECDC.
Experts in Germany are warning the omicron variant is now unstoppable and could cause hundreds of thousands of new infections every day.
Scholz's first summit
The Brussels summit was the first for Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, after 16 years of Angela Merkel attending these meetings.
With EU-Russia relations a key agenda issue, Scholz knew there would be pressure on him to explain his government's position around the NordStream 2 pipeline project, which is due to bring Russian natural gas into Germany through the Baltic Sea.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas made her feelings clear on the way into the meeting, saying "NordStream has always been a geopolitical project and I hope the German authorities will not let it proceed."
But some of the pressure on Scholz was alleviated in the hours just ahead of the summit when the head German energy regulator BNetzA announced a six-month delay in certification process for the pipeline.
"There will be no decisions on this issue in the first half of the year ," said President Jochen Homann.
Pieter Cleppe, editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, told DW the delay gives the new chancellor some breathing space on a difficult issue.
"Chancellor Scholz is clearly keen not to throw up hurdles for this pipeline," he said. "Apart from his party's more lenient approach to Russia, there's also the issue that Germany's policies to shut down nuclear and coal energy sources have made it more reliant on Russian energy."
More to come...
Edited by: Martin Kuebler