European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen left an EU leaders’ summit on Thursday to go into self-isolation, but then vanished from Brussels without a word, her chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, admitted Tuesday after repeated questioning by reporters.
Asked at a news conference for an update on von der Leyen’s status given that she was at risk of coronavirus infection, Mamer initially refused to disclose the president’s location, citing unspecified “security reasons.” Later in the news conference, he said that she was in Germany but did not specify if she was at her home in Hanover. Nor did he say when she would return to Brussels.
“Indeed, she is still self-isolating on a preventive basis and I can’t tell you when she’ll be in circulation in Brussels again,” Mamer said in response to the initial question about von der Leyen’s health and work status.
“We don’t yet have a firm timetable for her and you can understand why,” Mamer said. “But she is still working.” He noted that she had participated in a meeting with commissioners by videoconference on Monday, and chaired a College of Commissioners meeting, also virtually, and he said that she was — at the very moment of his answer — holding a video meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
“So indeed, she is really working even if she is really working on virtual networks,” Mamer said.
In response to follow-up questions later in the day, Mamer confirmed that von der Leyen was indeed working from home in Hanover, that she had planned to go there even before learning of the infection risk and it made even more sense to be there while in isolation. He said that she traveled by official car, with precautionary measures in place, and that the “security reasons” he cited during the news conference were merely a reference to the Commission’s normal practice of not discussing the president’s personal travel.
The initial defensiveness at the news conference seemed to reflect the heightened tensions of the pandemic — especially for “essential” public servants.
Von der Leyen announced on Twitter on Thursday that she was going into self-isolation. “I have just been informed that a member of my front office has tested positive to COVID-19 this morning,” she said. “I myself have tested negative. However, as a precaution I am immediately leaving the European Council to go into self-isolation.”
At the news conference, Mamer’s cryptic reference to not knowing when the president would be in Brussels “again” raised more questions than it answered, and reporters demanded further information.
“I am not going to tell you exactly where she is, I’m just going to say that she is self-isolating,” Mamer said. “She is not in the office.”
Pressed again on the fact that his own comments suggested the president had left town, Mamer replied: “No she is not in Brussels. But for security reasons, I can’t tell you.”
That stonewalling only prompted a barrage of questions about the Commission’s testing capacity, and about whether von der Leyen had adhered to all of the regulations regarding travel under pandemic conditions, with a reminder that former Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan resigned in August following a scandal over his violation of travel restrictions while back home in Ireland.
Mamer insisted that von der Leyen had followed all the rules. But his answers only fueled more queries as he insisted that von der Leyen had not in fact been required to self-isolate under the Belgian national protocol, but had voluntarily done so out of an abundance of caution.
That answer suggested that the infection risk was perceived as so serious that it led von der Leyen to depart the EU leaders’ summit moments before she was to update the heads of state and government on the EU’s negotiations on post-Brexit relations with the U.K. (In the follow-up, Mamer said the decision was taken to protect the other EU leaders gathered at the summit.)
“I won’t say anything specifically about exactly where she is,” Mamer said at the press conference. “She did leave the European Council to place herself in preventive self-isolation even though she herself had been tested negative on the very morning, but because she had been in contact with someone who had been tested the same day, and found to be positive, it was felt wise for her to be placed in self-isolation — that’s not quarantine, that’s preventive self-isolation, so it’s not exactly the same concept as quarantining.”
Von der Leyen has had to enter self-isolation once before, following an infection risk on an “essential” work trip to Portugal, and it is particularly awkward given that she has no private residence but lives in her office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the Commission’s headquarters.
Mamer indicated that the arrangement was one of the reasons that von der Leyen chose to leave town. “As I said, she has left Brussels to place herself in isolation, it’s not at all straightforward to self-isolate in the Berlaymont building with all the people that work here, on the floor where her office and her apartment are and so she’s no longer in Brussels, that’s quite true.”
Near the end of the press conference, Mamer returned to the issue to clarify. “What I can say is she is indeed in Germany at this point in time,” he said. “And we will see when she comes back to Belgium.”