European Council: No agreement on the rule of law, progress on COVID-19
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European Council: No agreement on the rule of law, progress on COVID-19

© EU, 2020

The virtual meeting yesterday of the members of the European Council focused on the coordination of the fight against the pandemic. On the issue of the rule of law conditionality no agreement was reached because of the opposition of three member states.

“On the mechanism on conditionality, the vast majority of members states agree with the compromise on the table,” said European Council President Charles Michel at the press conference late yesterday evening. “Some member states have indicated that they are not able to support the majority. We will continue the discussions to find an acceptable solution to all.”

The new rule of law mechanism allows for the suspension or reduction of EU funding to member states that do not respect the principles of the rule of law.

In July, the Special European Council agreed by unanimity on the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) for next period (2021 – 2027), including the recovery package and a rule of law mechanism.  “We need to stay united on this”, Michel said.  “This financial package is essential for our economic recovery. We need to implement it as soon as possible.”

However, three countries – Hungary, Poland and Slovenia – oppose the rule of law mechanism and are threatening to veto the whole package. Asked if he felt betrayed or blackmailed by them, he declined to reply and even to mention them by name. “I don’t want to make the situation more difficult. “The magic of EU is to find solutions even when there are deep differences of opinion.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen added that the situation is very serious but was optimistic about finding a solution in the last minute by listening to all countries, as usually happens in the EU decision-making process.

The two leaders did not disclose if a compromise is being worked out. The German EU presidency apparently plays a crucial role and Michel referred to Chancellor Merkel who gave the European Council an update on the state of play of the ongoing discussion.

On the positive side, the Council agreed on measures to fight the pandemic. They discussed a common EU approach for the use of rapid antigen tests, complementary to PCR testing, and stressed the need to work towards mutual recognition of test results. They also talked about national testing strategies and exchanged best practices.

They also agreed to speed up the preparations of national vaccination plans to ensure vaccines are available and affordable to all EU citizens, once authorised. Several advance purchase agreements with vaccine producers have already been finalised.

Von der Leyen estimated that the first conditional market authorisation for a vaccine will be given by the European Medicine Agency (EMA) already during the second half of December. “During the course of 2021, we’ll start to distribute vaccines in a step-wise approach,” she said without specifying any dates at this stage when vaccines will be available.

Michel stressed that communication on vaccines will be a challenge. “The number of people distrustful of vaccines is growing, and we must clearly communicate their value.” Von der Leyen said that all vaccines, including those acquired directly by member states, must undergo EMA authorisation. “This will add to transparency and increase safety and trust in the vaccines.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times