EU officials insisted Monday that a visit to Lisbon by a high-level Brussels delegation was “essential business,” even though the trip resulted in three European commissioners going into isolation because of coronavirus infection risks.
Friday’s visit, led by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was intended to showcase the start of Portugal’s presidency of the Council of the EU. But with the country’s health system on the verge of collapse following a surge in COVID-19 infections, the trip has raised prickly questions about how the EU decides what official travel is “essential” enough to make an exception to national lockdown measures.
Commission Executive Vice Presidents Valdis Dombrovskis and Margrethe Vestager, and Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms Elisa Ferreira went into quarantine over the weekend following their trip.
Their isolation was required after Portuguese Finance Minister João Leão tested positive for the virus on Saturday.
The trip has also raised questions about whether Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa put greater priority on generating publicity for the rotating presidency than on safeguarding the health of dozens of national officials who participated in Friday’s events.
The questions for Costa’s government are particularly troubling given that Portuguese hospitals are running out of intensive care beds. The country is also in the midst of campaigning for a presidential election on Sunday and many voters are worried about whether it’s safe to cast their ballots.
Although Portugal’s lockdown regulations have exemptions for political events, the government and the EU should have set a better example, said Ricardo Mexia, president of Portugal’s National Association of Public Health Doctors.
“During this critical moment, it really would have been best to refrain from unnecessary contact,” Mexia said. “Messaging is very important. We’re asking people to stay home, to find ways of living remotely, to use technology to meet and do work. Politicians need to participate in that messaging.”
Portuguese and Commission officials, however, insisted it was necessary to meet in person.
“Despite the masks, we need to look people in the eye. We really need to discuss face to face as much as we can,” Ana Paula Zacarias, Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, told a news conference. “The meeting in Lisbon was absolutely productive. We discussed all elements and the agenda is full,”
Zacarias insisted the delegation’s physical presence “was absolutely fundamental for us to keep on the discussion and advance in many dossiers.”
Still, there are questions not only about the nature of the work, but also whether enough effort was made to keep meetings short and to the point. A spokesperson for Vestager said the executive vice president’s contact risk came from sitting at the same dinner table as Leão. The Commission said the decision to hold a dinner meeting was made by the Portuguese hosts.
While the Commission said the overall trip was essential, officials clearly recognized the risks and tried to mitigate them by reducing the size of the delegation to eight. Often, the entire 27-member College of Commissioners travels for such visits at the start of presidencies.
At the Commission’s daily news conference Monday, von der Leyen’s chief spokesman Eric Mamer faced a barrage of inquiries about the day-long trip to the Portuguese capital. When a reporter asked why half of the College needed to travel, Mamer insisted on first correcting the number: “It is rather one-third of the College that traveled,” he said.
Mamer said repeatedly that the in-person meetings were “essential” to kick-off the Portuguese presidency. He also stressed the event was held at Portugal’s invitation and that nearly all Commission business was now being conducted online because of the pandemic.
“As to whether it was a good idea in hindsight to go on the mission or not: what I can say is that of course these decisions are not taken lightly, ” Mamer said. “The president reflected on this, but it is considered an essential mission because it is a launch of an extremely important presidency.”
The fallout was immediately apparent.
Ferreira’s quarantine forced her to participate remotely in a news conference Monday on the launch of the “European Bauhaus” — a signature initiative that von der Leyen flagged in her September State of the Union speech.
While Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, appeared in person, Ferreira at first could be heard but not seen. For a few minutes she remained a disembodied voice until showing up on a screen within a screen. About half way through Ferreira’s opening remarks, problems with the audio feed rendered her unintelligible.
Mamer said Commission leaders would continue to assess their travel needs on a case-by-case basis. He offered no information on plans to vaccinate top EU officials, except to say the vaccinations would eventually be carried out in accordance with Belgian rules.
A Portuguese public health doctor said authorities should move more quickly to vaccinate government officials.
“It also baffles me that they haven’t vaccinated the Cabinet. Health workers are a priority, sure, but there are just 18 ministers and they are constantly in contact with foreign dignitaries,” the doctor said. “Just vaccinate the damn Cabinet already.”
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blamed Costa for not taking stronger measures over Christmas to contain infections. “Costa wasn’t willing to cancel Christmas and we’re having this major outbreak now because of that.”
“We’re near where Italy was in March of last year, about two weeks away from our hospitals collapsing,” the doctor warned. “I get that the Commission’s visit was very politically important, but we’re at the top of the list in terms of prevalence and right now something like 1 percent of Portugal’s population is currently infected … It was clearly irresponsible for them to come here.”
Lili Bayer and Sofia Diogo Mateus contributed reporting.
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