Three EU leaders were forced to drop out of a Brussels summit after coming into contact with people infected by coronavirus, underscoring the degree to which EU decision-making is being impaired by the pandemic.
Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, bowed out on Friday because she had attended a national parliamentary committee hearing where another MP present has since tested positive for the virus.
Her forced absence came a day after Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, abruptly exited the gathering in its opening minutes after one of her team tested positive. Before the summit began, Poland’s premier Mateusz Morawiecki abandoned plans to attend and was instead represented by the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babis at discussions.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, was also absent in order to quarantine, which meant that no senior representative of the commission was in attendance for most of the summit.
The exodus of EU leaders will intensify questions already raised by some critics about whether the summit and other large bloc decision-making gatherings should take place in person at all.
Asked about the increasing sense of chaos stoked by Ms Marin’s departure, one EU diplomat replied simply: “I said it all along.”
The disruption is a microcosm of the pandemic’s resurgence in the EU, with governments across the bloc scrambling this week to impose restrictions in an effort to bring the infection rate under control. In Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland the level of infections hit record daily highs on Thursday, and France imposed evening curfews on its biggest cities.
Brussels — headquarters of the main EU institutions — has itself been badly affected. The Belgian government’s coronavirus consultative committee is due to meet later on Friday to decide on possible tougher controls.
Charles Michel, European Council president, said on Friday that leaders had decided to strengthen co-operation in response to the “serious and unprecedented” situation, especially in the realms of testing and contact-tracing. They would also speak on a more regular basis, he said.
Earlier he defended his decision to hold the summit in person, insisting that sensitive discussions on Brexit necessitated a physical get-together. The former Belgian premier said a number of leaders had expressed support for future physical meetings but he left open the precise nature of their next gathering.
The risks of physical meetings were already underlined at the last summit, which had to be delayed by a week to the start of October after Mr Michel himself came into contact with a security agent who had coronavirus. The council president himself tested negative.
Earlier in the crisis leaders held a succession of meetings via videoconference, before gathering in July for a marathon summit to sign off on the EU’s budget and recovery fund plans.
“There are some discussions where one needs to be brought a little closer to each other,” said Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, as she headed into the summit room on Thursday. “And then there are other meetings where you can do it as a videoconference.”
During the summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested the EU leaders meet via videoconference as regularly as every week to keep a handle on pandemic management.
Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s premier, said he had asked for a system for mutual recognition of coronavirus testing across the EU. “Today in 27 countries we do tests — but they are not necessarily recognised abroad,” he said.
The European Commission has responded to the growing sense of crisis by launching an effort for greater co-ordination and standardisation of coronavirus testing and data collation.
However the commission is hampered by its limited authority over crucial health and security dimensions of the pandemic, which are firmly in the purview of member states.
EU countries this week agreed to give reasonable notice of border and quarantine restrictions and to standardise the colour-coding system used to denote infection rates across the bloc.
But national capitals retain the right to make the decisions on what restrictions to impose and when, on travellers from both EU and non-EU countries.