Having difficulty reading this email?  View in browser

Charles Michel, digital collage



The second wave of COVID-19 is now upon us. Once again, the whole of Europe is affected. Within the space of just a few weeks, the situation has escalated from worrying to alarming. Now we must avoid a tragedy.

This was not how things were supposed to turn out. At the start of the pandemic, this troubling new virus spread like wildfire, taking both citizens and the authorities by surprise. National leaders were faced with a sudden emergency, with strict lockdowns bringing economic and social activity all but to a standstill, in order to stop the spread of the virus dead in its tracks. While these unprecedented measures produced the desired effect, they have already taken a considerable economic and social toll which has yet to reveal its full impact.

At the same time, the authorities, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have deployed exceptional efforts and financial resources in record time in order to develop vaccines as a matter of utmost urgency. And it was the European Union that took the initiative to launch an international fundraiser, releasing EUR 16 billion so far. Those efforts will pay off, as it is hoped that the first vaccines will become available by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021. However, it will take much longer for them to be available to the population at large.

When in late spring we succeeded in drastically slowing the speed at which COVID-19 was spreading, the priority became the recovery of economic, social and cultural life. In short, to enable citizens to return to a slightly more normal life. This choice needed to be backed up by a robust testing and tracing policy. After all, until the anticipated vaccines start to be administered on a massive scale, the only way to contain the epidemic while maintaining activity is to identify infected persons at a very early stage so that they can self-isolate and avoid infecting others.

At European level, this plan of action has not achieved the desired results. And as our daily activities have resumed, the virus has begun to circulate again. It has been able to spread even more easily because fatigue and a deceptive feeling of getting back to normal have made some people less careful about taking precautions. Hopes for the imminent emergence of vaccines on the one hand and the focus on measures to counteract the economic and social crisis on the other probably go some way towards explaining the insufficient progress that has been made to date on the testing/contact tracing/isolation plans.

Every day counts. What we need now is determined action on an unequivocally European level, based on two pillars: testing and contact tracing, and vaccines.

First, testing. While the PCR tests that have been favoured so far – the much talked-about ‘nasal swabs’ – are reliable, they are cumbersome to administer and to process in a laboratory, and getting the results back to the patients is also no easy matter. On a very large scale – that is to say, when the rate of infection is high – the system is difficult to manage. That is why this technique needs to be supplemented through the implementation of antigen tests, which – although currently regarded as less reliable – are more efficient, yielding results within 15 minutes, and therefore make it faster and easier to identify, on a large scale, individuals who are carriers of the virus and contagious, in particular when they are asymptomatic.

Some of those tests are now being approved and ordered by authorities at various levels and in various locations. However, we must not make the same mistakes as before: we must coordinate the approval of those tests in order to ensure that they are recognised Europe-wide. Furthermore, production capacity needs to be strategically assured at European level so that such tests can be available and accessible everywhere at the same time. We cannot see a repeat of a situation along the lines of last spring’s "race" for masks.

Secondly, we must implement effective contact tracing systems. At European level, this relates in particular to ensuring the interoperability of the contact tracing and alert applications. At the end of the last century, Europe reached agreement on the GSM mobile telephone standard; it also established the Galileo satellite-based geolocation system, and created a large area of free movement. There is therefore no reason why it should not be able to agree on the interoperability of secure and effective applications that also guarantee privacy.

Finally, the EU member states must reach consensus on common rules for self-isolation and quarantine. There is nothing inherently complicated about this; it is made difficult only by the numerous levels of governance, and is therefore a question of political will.

The second pillar of the strategy to be put in place is that of vaccines. Europe has been at the forefront of the extraordinary efforts that have been made in this area at worldwide level. And it has engaged in such efforts not only for its own sake, but for the benefit of the rest of the world too, and in particular on behalf of the most vulnerable countries, by championing the principle of assimilating anti-COVID-19 vaccines to a public good, accessible to all and universally available.

However, our strategy and our efforts must go beyond the development and marketing of vaccines. We must avoid chaos at all costs; we must define criteria for distributing vaccines among the various countries of Europe. It is also important to identify priority groups to whom the vaccines should be administered. Those who are most vulnerable (older persons, persons with chronic illnesses, etc.), together with healthcare workers, would seem to be obvious priorities. It still requires us to take a decision and implement that decision together.

Finally, the variety of vaccines expected to be introduced in the course of the next few months will present logistical problems for which we must also be prepared. Some vaccines will be single-dose, while others will require two doses. It will be possible to store some in ordinary refrigerators, while others will have to be kept at a temperature of several dozen degrees below zero. On a large scale, all this will give rise to problems of organisation and distribution which must be planned for and managed today.

The vaccination campaign will also require supervisory frameworks, in particular to monitor the effectiveness and any side-effects of the vaccines. This is especially important when one considers that a vaccine generally takes ten years to develop, not just one ... We must also pay great attention to public communication and to combating disinformation. If too many people are fearful of the vaccine, then the entire operation could be undermined.

At the end of the day, what we need is a Union of tests and vaccines. We need this not only in order to manage the health crisis, but also because any management of this epidemic on a patchwork basis, whereby some would emerge better off than others, would serve only to exacerbate the economic imbalances which would in turn be universally detrimental and necessitate other rescue plans.

Of course, health – like social affairs – is primarily a matter for the member states, and even the regions. However, this crisis has already demonstrated that no single country can tackle the situation on its own. The EU provides an irreplaceable added value – a pillar giving stability in fragile situations. And questions regarding competence cannot be allowed to impede essential action. When the flood waters are rising is no time to discuss who should fetch the buckets...

In order to succeed, however, we need to see a political impetus from the heads of state or government. At the beginning of March, it was the European Council, meeting by video conference for the first time as a matter of urgency, which initiated the common plans of action to tackle the crisis: plans which covered such matters as the joint management of stocks of medical equipment, the restoration of supply chains, the lifting of intra-European export bans on medical products and the financing of research into vaccines.

And it was the European Council which, in April, defined the guidelines mandating the European Commission to propose an exceptional instrument to support the recovery of those countries and regions which have been most severely impacted by the crisis. In July, this initiative led to the historic agreement of the 27 heads of state or government on a European budget and recovery fund totalling EUR 1.8 trillion over the next few years.

In the course of two meetings held in October, the European Council once again noted that operational coordination between the 27 member states ought to be boosted. It therefore called upon the European Commission and the member states to undertake efforts in that regard, in particular as regards testing methods, mutual recognition and vaccines.

In the face of this exceptional crisis, we must act swiftly and determinedly. Over the past few months, we have witnessed both setbacks and successes. However, the storm is not yet over. We are all in the same boat. It is with this in mind that regular meetings of the members of the European Council are to be initiated, with the first due to take place by video conference on Thursday 29 October.

Common sense dictates that, more than ever before, we in Europe must act as one, through unity and solidarity.

Watch the keynote speech by President Michel

"Europe has become a world power without realising it" 

On 29 September, President Charles Michel gave a keynote speech at an event organised by the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. "Effective strategic autonomy is the credo that brings us together to define our destiny, and to have a positive impact on the world," he said. 

Read the full speech
Watch the press statement by President Michel

The issue of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean is not just a matter for Greece or Cyprus 

President Michel travelled to Greece, Cyprus and Malta as part of the preparations for the Special European Council held on 1-2 October. "We must be very firm when it comes to defending the interests of all member states, when it comes to defending the interests of the EU," he said in Cyprus. The summit sent a strong message of full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, whose sovereignty and sovereign rights must be respected. 

Read the summary of the President's trip
Watch the press conference following the European Council meeting

“On Brexit, we are united and determined to reach an agreement. But not at any cost" 

The European Council discussed EU-UK relations. Leaders said that progress in key areas was not sufficient to reach a deal and called on the UK to make the necessary moves to achieve it. They also discussed the need to further increase EU climate ambition, assessed the COVID-19 epidemiological situation and exchanged views on EU relations with Africa. 

Go to the meeting page

European Council

contact us by email | visit Charles Michel's webpage

You receive this message because you have expressed an interest in news related to the European Council. 

Unubscribe | Legal notice | Copyright | Contact us

Please do not reply to this email