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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Portugal on Monday and Tuesday raised eyebrows, and a question: What in the name of COVID was so urgent that she needed to travel to Lisbon?
In normal times, von der Leyen’s two-day trip — to give a speech, attend a government meeting and meet Prime Minister António Costa and other top officials — would seem utterly routine.
But with coronavirus infections rising across Europe, the Commission is still stuck in Phase 1 of its own lifting of lockdown measures imposed in the spring, meaning that teleworking is the norm and only the most essential business travel should take place.
“I think our position on missions is very clear: only essential missions are allowed,” a Commission spokesman, Balazs Ujvari, said. “Everything else should be had via videoconference or should be replaced or even canceled.”
“Now, what is an essential mission,” Ujvari continued. “In terms of commissioners, it’s for them to judge on an ad hoc basis what they consider as essential. That’s our approach. We are not going to change it for the moment.”
“I am fighting tooth and nail for the idea that the European Parliament should meet in Strasbourg because if we accept that the European Parliament only meets in Brussels, we are screwed” — French President Emmanuel Macron
The persistent risk of infection — and increasing disruptions to EU business — have been quite visible in recent days.
Last week, Council President Charles Michel postponed a leaders’ summit and went into isolation after a security officer with whom he had been in close contact tested positive for coronavirus.
Since then, three EU commissioners — First Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides — have gone into self-quarantine after risks of exposure.
The forced isolations, as well as the Commission’s difficulty in explaining the crucial aspects of von der Leyen’s trip, highlight the challenge facing political leaders as they continue to wrestle with a public health crisis for which there is no modern precedent.
To a large degree, leaders are being forced to improvise and make snap decisions in response to unpredictable and fast-changing circumstances — with inevitable second-guessing and, at times, angry backlash.
A decision by European Parliament President David Sassoli to cancel the October plenary in Strasbourg and hold the session in Brussels drew an irate response on Tuesday from French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron, speaking to university students on a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania, suggested that the EU was at grave risk if the Parliament does not resume its monthly gatherings at its formal seat in Alsace.
“I am fighting tooth and nail for the idea that the European Parliament should meet in Strasbourg because if we accept that the European Parliament only meets in Brussels, we are screwed,” Macron said. “Because in 10 years everything will be in Brussels and people will only speak among themselves in Brussels.”
If Macron could not offer a particularly rational explanation for why the EU would be screwed if Parliament did not split its time between two seats, Commission officials had even more trouble explaining why von der Leyen needed to go to Lisbon.
The Commission president’s meeting with Costa was clearly not vital. Costa will be in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for the European Council summit that Michel postponed last week when he went into quarantine.
And while it is certainly a matter of urgent concern in Brussels that the 27 EU countries ratify the EU’s new long-term budget, which is attached to a historic coronavirus recovery plan, there is little doubt that Portuguese lawmakers will approve the €1.82 trillion package. Costa, who is a social democrat, and his government were among the most ardent proponents of the joint borrowing initiative at the core of the EU recovery plan.
Eric Mamer, the Commission’s chief spokesman, suggested that the essential nature of von der Leyen’s trip was self-evident.
“In any case the meetings with a Head of State and a Prime Minister in the run-up to the EUCO and in the context of on-going negotiations on NextGenerationEU and other issues are obvious,” Mamer wrote in response to questions.
Pressed on what was so urgent about the Portugal trip, Mamer replied, “I would answer that it is the President’s assessment and we have nothing to add.” Mamer reiterated that commissioners needed the flexibility to decide when and why to travel amid the continuing health situation.
“Trips are decided by members of the College based on the needs of their portfolio, or, in the case of the President, the overall steer of the College’s policies,” he wrote. “There is no intention of setting generic criteria, as the activities of the College are much too broad for any rigid classification.”
Some top EU officials have continued to make essential work trips despite the coronavirus risks, and have undergone frequent and repeated testing as a result.
Michel, for instance, visited Greece, Cyprus and Malta earlier this month — a Mediterranean swing that his advisers said was part of his preparation for the crucial leaders’ summit focused on EU relations with Turkey.
Some EU workers have complained about uneven procedures.
On that trip, Michel also visited the charred ruins of the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, which was destroyed by an arson fire and put new pressure on EU leaders to overhaul the bloc’s migration and asylum rules.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has also kept up a heavy travel schedule — hardly a surprise for the EU’s top diplomat.
But privately, other top officials have expressed extreme reluctance to travel — not only because of the infection risks but because of fear of running afoul of ever-changing national rules and restrictions.
Over the summer, the violation of travel restrictions in Ireland created a scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan.
And while the EU is doing its best to serve as a clearinghouse of information about national policies, those rules and restrictions are changing on a constant basis. On travel, and steps to be taken after contact with a confirmed COVID case, the EU institutions have followed the national guidelines of Belgium, the host country, which also include special exceptions for diplomats and other essential workers.
Some EU workers have complained about uneven procedures.
A September 25 staff memo stressed the Commission’s priority was the health and safety of its workers and said that a planned move to Phase 2 of reopening on October 1 had been postponed indefinitely.
“We stay in phase 1 until further notice,” the internal memo stated. “This means that teleworking remains the default.” A cap of no more than 20 percent occupancy of Commission officials also remains in place, officials said.
The memo warned of recent changes to Belgium’s policies and urged employees to stay updated. But while the written policy stressed safety and insists that attendance in the office is voluntary for all but those who are deemed “critical” workers, some EU employees said they felt pressured to meet expectations of senior officials to appear in person.
Cristiano Sebastiani, president of Renouveau et Démocratie, a trade union for the EU institutions, praised the overall handling of the crisis.
“Most of our requests have been taken into account and I’m glad to confirm that [Budget and Administration] Commissioner [Johannes] Haan has managed the situation in a quite satisfactory manner,” Sebastiani said.
EU officials are hardly alone in their struggles.
In London on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was tripped up by a question on coronavirus rules and answered with incorrect information about rules limiting social gatherings. Johnson later apologized.
Karlo Ressler, a Croatian member of the European Parliament from the center-right European People’s Party, has called on the EU to learn the lessons from coronavirus lockdown and adopt more efficient working methods that would save money for taxpayers even after the pandemic subsides.
But in an interview Ressler said that it was clear governments at all levels were struggling, and that teleworking, while efficient and safe, was not always ideal.
“You can perhaps see it best in the Parliament, it’s really not the same if you meet in person,” he said. “I witness that every day. It’s much harder to negotiate or have meetings in larger groups if you have to do it remotely.”
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.