Omicron and Ukraine variant on the EU leader table

Focus on the need to increase vaccination rates, coordination of travel measures is also likely to be talked about

The covid situation in Europe, a fixed point of the summits of European heads of state and government since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the maneuvers of Russia on the border with Ukraine will be the central themes of the European Council meeting today in Brussels.

The last summit of 2021, preceded yesterday by the Eastern Partnership summit (EU with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, plus Belarus which this time does not participate), will take place today all in one day, in an attempt to squeeze into span of 24 hours a rather dense agenda.

It will be the first summit without Angela Merkel since 2005 and the first for the new chancellor Olaf Scholz. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer will also make his debut in Brussels, while it should be the last summit for Czech Andrej Babis. The first topic on the leaders’ table, after the speech by the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, scheduled for 10 am, will be the situation regarding Covid-19. The focus will be on the need to increase vaccination rates, especially in countries where they are lowest, also in light of the expected spread of the Omicron variant. of Sars-CoV-2, destined to become prevalent in the EU by mid-January, as Ursula Von der Leyen said.

It is probable that there is also talk of the coordination of travel measures: an EU diplomatic source expects Mario Draghi to explain to his colleagues the reasons that led Italy to introduce the obligation to test also for vaccinated travelers from other EU countries. If the Commission stresses that the measure should have been notified 48 hours earlier, in a context in which decisions often have to be taken very quickly, due to the information available, the Italian move is widely understood by other States.

A community source stresses that “it is legitimate for a country to defend its population” from the increase in infections, while an EU diplomatic source notes that at EU level efforts are being made to coordinate as much as possible, but national measures are always possible. Moreover, the vice president of the Commission Vera Jourova explained on Tuesday that the regulation that established the Green Pass, or digital certificate Covid EU, provides for the ‘backdoors’ desired by the States specifically to deal with emergency situations, as is precisely the one determined by the spread of the Omicron variant. In addition, Italy is not the first European country to introduce the obligation to test for EU vaccinated people: before us, Ireland and Portugal introduced it, without anyone protesting.

In the debate between leaders it is probable that there is also talk of the vaccination obligation, even if the decisions on the matter are strictly national competence. Yesterday von der Leyen stressed that the “price” that Europe pays for unvaccinated people is becoming “higher and higher”. The president reiterated that the “priority” is to increase vaccination coverage, “in all age groups, including children”, and that the best protection against Omicron, waiting for the vaccines to be adapted (it takes about “100 days” ), is to have the third dose inoculated.

Leaders will then talk about the energy prices, which remain “very high”, observes an EU source, and which probably will not return to pre-Covid levels, not even next spring when an easing of current tensions is expected. We will discuss the functioning of the electricity market and the possibility of storing gas jointly, as envisaged by the proposal presented yesterday by the European Commission. This is a discussion destined to return regularly to the table of leaders in the next summits, predicts an EU source. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa will then illustrate to colleagues the results achieved by the Slovenian presidency, which is about to pass the baton.

It will then pass to security and defense, in view of the approval of the Strategic Compass, the strategic compass of the EU, a programmatic document prepared by Josep Borrell which should be approved in the March Council. On this, a senior EU official expects an “interesting” discussion among the leaders. We will then discuss the external dimension of migration, a subject very dear to Italy, which for the third consecutive time returns to the leaders’ agenda.

It is the least divisive part of migration policies: the countries of the South are pushing to relaunch partnerships with the countries of origin and transit of migrants and will invite the Commission and the Council to monitor the progress of things step by step, returning to the topic in occasion of each Internal Affairs Council and in the next Euco (as the European Council is called in jargon, which brings together the leaders, while the EU Council brings together the ministers, in its multiple configurations). In this, Italy is not alone, but moves hand in hand with Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Portugal.

In the conclusions, the issue of the external dimension of migration will be clearly separated from that of the situation on the Belarusian border, which more properly relates to the foreign affairs section, being a hybrid attack conducted using migrants. Therefore, also in view of the French presidency which could bring progress on a dossier bogged down for some time, we continue to make progress in small steps, in the awareness that the migratory phenomenon is complex and that, therefore, there are no easy solutions. Not even mandatory relocations alone would solve anything, because if introduced alone they would naturally act as a pull factor. And this is also well known by the Mediterranean countries.

One way to make progress, but it will not be in the conclusions, could be to distinguish between ‘natural’ landings, that is, actually occurred on the Italian coasts, and rescues in the Sar area (Search and Rescue, search and rescue), far from the Italian coasts ( or Maltese), for the purpose of redistribution, on a voluntary basis as provided for by the Malta agreement (voluntary membership, but then mandatory quotas).

At lunch Ukraine and Belarus will be discussed. A “strong message” is expected that any Russian military action against Kiev will provoke a “very strong reaction” from the EU, explains a senior EU official. If some countries push for preventive sanctions against Moscow, Italy, Germany and France are against it, because sanctioning even before something happens would be a process of intentions and could be counterproductive, favoring a stiffening of Moscow. It is possible that the issue of doubling the Nordstream trans-Baltic gas pipeline may also enter the discussion.

We will then move on to EU-African Union summit, and Ethiopia, shaken by a bloody civil war. The conclusions should send a strong call to the warring parties for a ceasefire, unless there are unforeseeable developments on the ground, encouraging international mediators to continue their efforts to stem the conflict that sees the forces of the premier clash. Abiy Ahmed against the Tigrinya armies. Finally, the dinner will be dedicated toEurosummit, with ECB President Christine Lagarde. Leaders will take stock of the situation, with particular reference to the Banking Union and the state of the economy, with inflation rising everywhere, which is worrying. Lagarde should give information on this after the press conference in Frankfurt. The informal European Council that France will organize in March should also be devoted mainly to economic issues.