European Union leaders and their large following of diplomats and advisers met Friday in Portugal for two days of in-person talks, signaling their belief that the threat from COVID-19 on the continent is waning amid a quickening vaccine rollout.
The pandemic was a constant presence, however. Meeting face-to-face for the first time this year, the leaders converged on a 19th-century riverside Customs building in the picturesque Atlantic coast city of Porto. Face masks concealed their smiles but they enthusiastically bumped elbows and fists and chatted. They sat apart, without a table, in a large hall and balanced sheaves of paper on their laps, a small plastic water bottle at their feet.
“The (pandemic) recovery is still in an early stage,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen conceded in her opening speech.
Scores of police, staff and journalists at the summit wore masks and had to undergo PCR tests before being allowed to attend.
The summit hopes to repair some of the economic damage the pandemic has wreaked in the bloc. In a late addition, EU leaders will also discuss proposals to share COVID-19 vaccine technology to help speed the end of the pandemic for all the world.
On Saturday, the leaders will take part in an unprecedented meeting, via videoconference, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country needs more help amid a devastating virus surge — and who can smooth the path toward an elusive bilateral trade deal.
EU leaders appear keen to “try and convey a sense of normalcy, of slowly returning to normal,” said Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo.
That’s a key consideration for southern EU countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where tourism is an economic mainstay.
Despite a slow start to its inoculation drive, the EU has passed the milestone of 150 million vaccinations given out and reckons it can reach what it calls “sufficient community immunity” in two months’ time. The European Commission has proposed relaxing restrictions on travel to the bloc this summer.
Yet who can travel, when and where remains a sensitive question for Europeans. Pandemic improvements have been uneven across the continent and many EU citizens remain subject to coronavirus restrictions. In a political nod to those concerns, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not travel to Portugal.
Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela also did not attend in person because he was in quarantine after his wife tested positive.
The summit made a splash in Porto, with a population of 200,000, whose many hotels have been shut down since last spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.
With the pandemic exposing inequalities and bringing greater hardship in the bloc, the talks will look at how to ensure the rights of EU citizens are protected in employment support, gender equality and social services.
“COVID has taken the covers off and shown the gaps” in care, says Laura Rayner, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. “So many people, through no fault of their own, have found themselves requiring some support.”
The EU is looking for the endorsement in Porto of three headline targets: an EU employment rate of at least 78%, at least 60% of adults attending training courses every year, and reducing the number of those at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 million people, including 5 million children.
The push for social safeguards has caused some tensions. Last month, 11 EU governments welcomed the Porto effort but warned central EU authorities against meddling in national policies.
Plans for a face-to-face EU-India summit in Porto fell through after Modi canceled his trip due to the pandemic. But Saturday’s talks will be the first time an Indian leader joins a meeting with all of the EU’s leaders.
The talks with Modi are important because India and the EU spent six years trying to negotiate a free trade deal before giving up in 2013. Among the thorny issues were vehicle parts and digital privacy.