On the list of things not to do during a pandemic, holding big international gatherings is close to the top.
But European Union leaders and their large following of diplomats and advisers are meeting in Portugal on Friday for two days of talks, sending a signal that they see the threat from COVID-19 on their continent as waning, amid a quickening vaccine rollout.
Their talks hope to repair some of the damage the coronavirus has caused in the bloc, in such areas as welfare and employment. In a late addition to their agenda, EU leaders will also discuss Thursday’s U.S. proposal to share the technology behind COVID-19 vaccines to help speed the end of the pandemic.
The leaders will also take part in an unprecedented meeting, via videoconference, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country needs more help with a devastating virus surge — and who can smooth the path to an elusive bilateral trade deal.
Like across much of the world, COVID-19 forced high-level political talks to move online over the past year in Europe. This is the 27-nation bloc’s first face-to-face summit in five months, after an exceptional meeting in Brussels last December to discuss post-pandemic spending. Another in-person summit, in Brussels, is planned for later this month.
EU leaders appear keen to “try and convey a sense of normalcy, of slowly returning to normal,” says Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo, a global advisory firm.
That is a key consideration for southern EU countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where tourism is an economic mainstay.
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Despite a slow start to its inoculation drive, the EU this week passed the milestone of 150 million vaccinations and reckons it can reach what it calls “sufficient community immunity” in two months’ time. The European Commission proposes relaxing restrictions on travel to the bloc this summer.
Who can move around, when and where remains a sensitive question for Europeans, however. Pandemic improvements have been uneven across the continent, and many Europeans remain subject to irksome restrictions. In a political nod to those concerns, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won’t travel to Portugal.
And as a reminder of the risks, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela won’t be attending because he is in quarantine after his wife tested positive on Wednesday.
Pandemic fundamentals remain unchanged: those attending the summit must show negative PCR tests for COVID-19, while social distancing and mask-wearing are required.
The summit will make a splash in the picturesque Atlantic coast city of Porto, with a population of just over 200,000. Most of the city’s hotels have been shut since last spring due to COVID-19, and local gripes about streets being overcrowded with tourists now seem a distant memory.
With the pandemic exposing inequalities and bringing greater hardship in the bloc, the talks in Porto will initially look at how to ensure EU citizens are guaranteed their rights in such areas as 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,” she said.
“There’s certainly more awareness on the street” of the need for a social safety net and “it would be naïve of politicians to ignore that,” she added.
The EU is looking for 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, largely led by center-left EU governments, has caused some tension within the bloc. Last month, 11 governments welcomed the Porto effort but warned central EU authorities against meddling in national policies — a clash of interests that has long dogged the bloc.
On Saturday, the leaders will hold an online summit with India’s Modi covering trade, climate change and help with India’s COVID-19 surge. Some EU countries have already sent medicine and equipment to India.
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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.
Plans for a face-to-face EU-India summit in Porto fell through after Modi canceled his trip due to the pandemic, but it is the first time an Indian leader will participate in a meeting with all the EU’s leaders.