EU leaders hold talks on opening up travel

Now EU risks tearing itself apart over holidays: Tourist-dependent countries want to open borders while Brussels scolds Germany and five other nations for unilaterally closing borders

  • Greece says British tourists will be welcome and has struck a deal with Israel
  • But other countries including Germany are being rapped for border closures
  • One EU official says the bloc wants to avoid ‘a new death season’ this summer 

EU nations are facing a split over opening up travel as tourism-reliant nations pile pressure on Brussels to give the green light to so-called ‘vaccine passports’ while others including Germany are scolded for imposing border closures.  

European leaders were locked in virtual talks today on opening up travel and speeding up a stuttering vaccine roll-out which is moving far slower than Britain’s. 

Greece has already struck a bilateral deal with the world’s vaccination champion Israel and says that British tourists will be welcome this summer if they have a vaccine or a negative test. 

Austria has also called for an EU-wide ‘green passport’ which would allow people to go on holiday and ‘enjoy gastronomy, culture, events and other things again’.  

But other countries including Germany have been lectured by EU officials for imposing unilateral border closures to keep out the feared new variants of Covid-19. 

One EU official gave a blunt assessment of the risks of opening up – saying that the bloc wants to avoid ‘a new death season’. 

France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are all seeing cases stagnate or increase with only a fairly small share of the population vaccinated so far – while infections are continuing to drop in the UK with far more people given at least one vaccine dose 

People enjoy an afternoon on the beach in Barcelona last summer – with European nations now looking for ways to open up again for the 2021 tourist season 

European Council president Charles Michel (top left) meets EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at a virtual summit today 

The virtual meeting today comes with many EU countries still mired in second or third waves of the pandemic and all of them struggling to dish out vaccines. 

The UK is way ahead in the vaccine race and could allow Britons to travel abroad from May 17, but whether European countries will be open by then is less clear.  

Greek tourism minister Haris Theoharis said vaccinated Britons would be allowed in this summer, after the Mediterranean nation was one of the first to open up in 2020.  

Theoharis said those who had not been vaccinated would need a negative test, telling ITV News that ‘it doesn’t mean that only vaccinated people can travel’. 

‘We feel that the vaccination programmes is a game changer, together with rapid tests and alongside PCR tests,’ he said. 

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Bulgarian premier Boyko Borissov have also called for ‘green passports’ that could indicate both vaccines and test results.  

But several EU officials and diplomats warn that, while they back a verifiable vaccination record, it is too early to look at using them to permit easier travel. 

They said it was still not clear whether vaccinated people can infect others, and worried that it could open a travel schism between a minority of vaccinated haves and a majority of unvaccinated have-nots.

Many young people have voiced anger at the prospect of seeing their elders enjoy foreign holidays while they themselves are still stuck at home.  

Tourists in Magaluf last summer after Spain opened up again, only for the travel and hospitality industries to take another pounding as the virus came roaring back in the autumn 

The UK’s rapid vaccine roll-out has opened the door to international travel this summer, but whether Britons will be welcome in Europe is less clear  

One senior EU diplomat acknowledged that all EU countries were eager to reopen for the summer season, but that said ‘we have to move this forward together’. 

Brussels is also concerned about new variants which could require special booster jabs, meaning vaccine certificates would have to be constantly updated. 

And a dispute is also stewing over severe border restrictions put in place by several EU countries to curb the virus variants, and which Brussels sees as disproportionate.

It has written warning letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden about their measures, giving them until late next week to respond.

An EU official said he expected ‘quite a lively discussion between the member states’ on that issue during the summit.

The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, tweeted that ‘the closure of borders by certain member states hurts the entire single market’.

Israel has already moved to bring in ‘green passes’ to re-open its economy, with nearly a third of the population already receiving two doses of a vaccine. 

In addition to those who have already recovered from the disease, it means almost three million people in Israel are eligible for such a pass. 

Gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities are re-opening only to those who have been fully vaccinated and obtained the pass.

The scheme is being closely watched abroad, with Boris Johnson saying that the UK was looking at the idea of ‘certification’ but mindful of ethical concerns. 

A woman holds up a vaccine ‘green pass’ in Israel which is pioneering the scheme after leading the world in distributing jabs 

Lifting weights at a gym near Tel Aviv on Saturday, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was moving ahead ‘with caution’ after three national lockdowns. 

Netanyahu is hoping the successful vaccine roll-out will boost his support ahead of March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth vote in less than two years. 

On top of examining options for developing a common certificate strategy, the EU leaders will look at how to speed the continent’s own sluggish vaccine roll-out.

Supplies in the first two months of 2021 have been hampered by delays in AstraZeneca shipments after the EU was slow to sign a contract with the firm.  

The EU now hopes that supplies will be greatly boosted from April with more stocks from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. 

There is also the possibility of new vaccines such as a single-dose option from Johnson & Johnson being authorised.

Under-fire EU chief Ursula von der Leyen is sticking by her goal of having 70 percent of adults in the European Union fully vaccinated by mid-September.

So far just four per cent of the bloc’s 447million people have received at least one jab, according to official figures, with two per cent given the full two doses.  

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