View from Brussels: Notes from quarantine

The Belgian capital is under partial lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak, plunging the EU institutions into mostly uncharted waters. But it does not mean the action has ground to a standstill. Far from it.

Thank the gods for technology. After nearly a week of self-isolation, I have been able to keep up with the latest in comings and goings here in Brussels thanks to a mixture of good old phone calls, WhatsApp, Zoom and even shouting down from my balcony.

EU wheelings and dealings have continued as well. Although wide-sweeping measures - like closing borders, exporting medical equipment and so on - are still the domain of national governments, there have been some notable steps taken.

Airlines are going to struggle to survive this period. Flybe already bit the dust and the share prices of Europe’s most recognisable carriers are difficult to look at. But the Commission stepped in last week to offer a sliver of hope, suspending some of its stricter rules.

Companies like BA and Lufthansa have to fulfil at least 80 per cent of their airport take-off and landing slots in a calendar year or risk losing them the following year. Slots are the foundation stones of airline business plans so it is rarely worth breaking the rules.

Despite mass cancellations and diversions, carriers found themselves in the ridiculous situation of operating sometimes empty services - known as ‘ghost flights’ - just to hang on to their slots. Thousands of tonnes of kerosene were burned needlessly over the past few weeks as a result.

Pending approval by governments and MEPs, those rules are going to be put on ice until the summer.

EU leaders and officials have also made top political decisions this last week - despite various degrees of self-isolation and curbed travel plans - largely thanks to the wonders of video-conferencing technology.

The likes of France’s Emmanuel Macron, Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shared pictures on social media of their ‘e-summit’ in progress.

Thousands of officials, many of whom are working on projects not directly related to the outbreak, have decamped to their home offices to continue their day-to-day work.

Aside from a few tech support hurdles when so many logged on at once on Monday morning, E&T understands that all is going well so far. It may even usher in a new era of remote working once this all blows over.

But technology looks like it will not save the UK-EU trade talks from the scrapheap, although negotiations  planned for Wednesday have been put on hold.

If teleconferencing won’t hack it then the chances of a final deal by the December deadline become slimmer and slimmer. The UK government has until July to request an extension and the next few weeks might prove crucial in showing if that is politically viable or not.

Commission chief von der Leyen made a point of saying on Monday that any closure of the EU’s external borders would not preclude British people from travelling as “UK citizens are EU citizens”, until the end of the transition period anyway.

Last week, it appeared that Britain had been given special treatment by US President Donald Trump, after he banned flights from Schengen zone countries but not the UK, Ireland and four other nations.

Any notion of a preferential relationship evaporated over the weekend though when Trump admitted the UK and Ireland would be added to his blacklist. 

The president irked Europeans further this week when it emerged that the US government had approached a Germany pharmaceutical company working on a coronavirus vaccine with an offer to buy the exclusive rights to their eventual findings.

Berlin quickly said that it was not for sale and just a few hours later the Commission announced an offer of €80m in financing to the pharma firm to help it scale up and develop its operations.

They say that it takes a crisis to find out who your real friends are. For the UK, coronavirus could well be that crisis.

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