The European Commission president has called for a debate about mandatory vaccinations in Europe as momentum grows in some member states for holdouts to be pressured to accept jabs.
Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels that she believed it was appropriate to have a “discussion” on the matter given how many people remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 in the union — although she stressed that such rules were strictly a decision for member states.
Her words come as Germany’s political leaders prepare to meet on Thursday to discuss pushing forward a vaccination mandate as they seek ways of bolstering coverage. The talks have taken on added urgency given the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which was identified last week.
“It is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the EU,” von der Leyen said on Wednesday. “This needs discussion — this needs a common approach.”
Von der Leyen said she was concerned about low vaccination rates. According to figures compiled by Our World in Data and the Financial Times, about 147m people in the EU are not fully vaccinated. The president said she would never have imagined that so many people were turning down “life-saving vaccines” despite the pandemic raging worldwide.
The president stressed that she was expressing a personal view, rather than suggesting a new EU policy. Her intervention comes as appetite grows in a number of member states to increase pressure on the unvaccinated even before cases of the new variant were reported in Europe.
Olaf Scholz, Germany’s incoming chancellor, this week said he wanted to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory as soon as February or March. He will meet current chancellor Angela Merkel and representatives of Germany’s states on Thursday to discuss a vaccine mandate, which would need to pass through the country’s legislature.
Last month Austria became the first country on the continent to decide that Covid-19 vaccinations would become compulsory for its population. The measure, announced by chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, was a response to low vaccination rates and surging caseloads.
From mid-January Greece will impose monthly fines of €100 on over-60s who refuse a vaccine, while other countries have insisted on vaccines for healthcare workers and people working in long-term care facilities.
In Slovakia, the government has offered hospitality vouchers worth €500 to senior citizens who get inoculated as it seeks to lift one of the EU’s lowest vaccination rates.
“Not everyone is happy with her wading into this given it’s very much a member-state competence,” said one EU diplomat about von der Leyen’s comments. “Given how sensitive this topic is in some member states it’s not clear whether her intervention will help.”
Addressing the Omicron variant, von der Leyen said it was necessary to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst” as scientists develop their analysis of the threat posed, with results expected in two to three weeks.
If it became apparent that existing vaccines did not work so well against the new variant, the EU had precautionary measures in place, she said, pointing to terms in the bloc’s contracts with drugmakers allowing for updated versions of the vaccines.