Top EU officials keep traveling despite COVID risks

Top EU officials admit they are crossing coronavirus redlines, traveling in and out of restricted zones for official business under exemptions for diplomats and essential workers — an inherently risky endeavor for themselves and others close to the highest echelons of power in Brussels.

The officials, including European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, insist that they are complying with Belgian public health rules, and have undergone repeated testing for COVID-19.

Even if technically legal, top officials’ recent travel highlights the obstacles for political leaders in fulfilling official duties while limiting the danger of infection for themselves, as well as family members, other EU and foreign leaders, and staff. And it raises questions about how leaders will determine what travel is “essential” — a calculation for which there are few clear precedents.

Borrell, for instance, arrived in Brussels on Wednesday from Libya — where all but essential travel is banned for EU citizens — and immediately attended a day-long meeting of the College of Commissioners led by Ursula von der Leyen. Other commissioners, however, did not attend in person because of their recent travel from areas designated as orange or red zones by the Belgian authorities.

Officials present at the meeting said that social distancing and other health guidelines were followed, and that the decision to attend in person was Borrell’s to make.

Such decisions have taken on heightened sensitivity, especially if they involve private travel. Phil Hogan resigned last month as European trade commissioner after it was revealed that he had violated guidelines in Ireland and, after an initial reluctance to apologize, was not fully forthcoming in describing his movements to von der Leyen.

In a statement on Hogan’s resignation, von der Leyen stressed that, as Europeans “make sacrifices and accept painful restrictions,” she expects commissioners “to be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations.”

Belgium’s guidelines clearly permit work travel by government officials and diplomats.

And a spokesman, Peter Stano, noted that Borrell, whose official title is high representative and vice president for foreign affairs (HRVP), had been back in Belgium from Libya for such a short period of time that technically no restrictions would apply even without a diplomatic exemption from the rules.

“HRVP was in Brussels less than 24 hours this week for the college so that would be outside the scope of measures in Belgium,” Stano said. “However, he took a test before leaving Slovenia on Monday (he continued to Libya) and was tested again also upon return to Brussels on Wednesday morning. He will be tested again once he comes back to Brussels from his trips in Egypt and Italy this week. He is in touch with Belgian authorities to make sure that he complies with the national legislation and health requirements. He takes the advice and the measures very seriously. Needless to say that all his tests so far were negative.”

For regular citizens in Belgium, non-essential travel to countries outside the EU, the Schengen area and the U.K. is banned. And anyone returning from a banned travel area is required to be tested for COVID and to self-quarantine.

Mandatory quarantine and testing is also required for travelers returning from red zones within the EU, including parts of Spain, where Borrell spent his summer holidays, and Paris, where Michel, the Council president, visited President Emmanuel Macron on August 28.

Michel and his family had been vacationing in southern France before the meeting, in a zone that Belgian authorities designated as “orange” while they were there — meaning a quarantine and test are recommended, but not required, upon returning to Belgium.

A senior Council official said that Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, was adhering to Belgium’s health guidelines even though his work travel is not subject to any restriction.

“In accordance with Belgian rules, as communicated to diplomatic missions and international organizations, the European Council president’s missions are not subject to the travel advisory of the Belgian government and can take place to green, orange and red zones,” the official said, adding: “The president fully complies with Belgian sanitary rules.”

Michel, like Borrell, has taken repeated tests. After the meeting that Friday with Macron at the Elysée Palace, Michel returned for the weekend to southern France, where he tested negative. He then traveled on Monday to Berlin for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Michel had planned to marry his partner, Amélie Derbaudrenghien, in Montmeyan, a village in southeast France, but the couple, who have two children, postponed their wedding because of the travel restrictions and potential requirement to quarantine.

During the month of August, the president stayed in the south of France with his family in a zone that the Belgian authorities turned “orange” during his stay. Michel was tested again after returning from Berlin and tested negative, the Council official said. On the advice of their doctor, Michel’s family was also tested and cleared.

Extensive travels

Borrell’s travels have been far more extensive. Following his holiday in Spain, he visited Berlin for a meeting of EU foreign ministers and then went on to Bled in Slovenia, and Libya. Following his one-day return to Brussels for the college meeting, he left for visits to Egypt and Italy.

“HRVP Josep Borrell takes the coronavirus-related measures very seriously and observes preventive measures as well as distancing measures during his engagements and travels, including being tested prior to traveling and upon return,” said Stano, his spokesman, adding that Borrell would be tested again upon return from Italy.

Some top officials are being careful to remain in utmost compliance. Helena Dalli, the EU commissioner for equality, for example, is now in quarantine after returning to Brussels from her home country of Malta, which Belgian authorities designated as an orange zone, meaning quarantine is recommended but not required.

Travel by senior public officials during the pandemic has become a source of intense debate.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, stirred controversy by apparently violating the country’s lockdown restrictions but his boss defended him. Cummings denied wrongdoing and remained in his post despite an outcry and calls for his resignation.

The coronavirus has forced world leaders to abandon their usual routines and rewrite the script for how global diplomacy is conducted. Some major gatherings like the G7 summit of advanced democracies, have been canceled or postponed indefinitely, while others, like the United Nations General Assembly this month, have been shifted to a virtual format.

EU leaders met by videoconference throughout the spring and only held an in-person summit in Brussels in July, where they clinched a deal on landmark budget-and-recovery package. But a summit of all 27 EU heads of state and government with Chinese President Xi Jinping that had been planned in Leipzig, Germany later this month was canceled.

Michel has tentatively scheduled another European Council summit in Brussels for later this month but the resurgence of infections in many countries, including Belgium, may force him to change plans.

European Parliament officials are still debating whether to go forward with a planned plenary session in Strasbourg later this month.

Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.

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