EU leaders are starting a two-day virtual summit on Thursday to discuss the latest developments in the virus crisis, as well as the EU’s relations with Turkey and Russia.
Many of the discussions will be centered on the bloc’s efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On COVID, our top priority is to speed up vaccination campaigns across the EU,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, wrote in the summit’s invitation letter.
“To this end, the ongoing work to boost vaccine production, increase vaccine deliveries and ensure more transparency and predictability of supplies should be intensified,” he added.
Controversies around vaccination
Despite the fact that the bloc last year signed advanced purchase agreements with six vaccine producers to buy about 2.6 billion vaccine doses, it has been struggling with vaccination campaigns and ensuring the contracted deliveries.
With repeated promises from producers, the rollout seems to be secured from the second quarter of the year, but the distribution of vaccines has also created tensions between member states.
The question of fair shares will certainly be discussed by the leaders since a group of six countries led by Austria asked for a revision of the redistribution mechanism in order to provide them with more vaccines.
The question of vaccine certificates is also expected to divide EU leaders.
The European Commission last week presented a proposal on a common digital pass to facilitate travel inside the bloc during the COVID-19 pandemic by waiving quarantine or test requirements for those who hold it.
While Mediterranean countries are pushing for quick implementation in the hope of saving the summer tourist season, many governments are afraid that the system would lead to inequalities between vaccinated and non-inoculated citizens.
Moreover, Hungary’s use of Chinese and Russian jabs also raises concerns since the European Medicine Agency has not authorized their products.
EU leaders will also talk about the bloc’s future relationship with Turkey, based on a report prepared by the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the European Commission.
The heads of states and governments are expected to repeat their promises on updating the Customs Union between the bloc and Turkey, as well as granting visa-free travel for Turkish citizens if the relationship continues to improve.
Ankara has long pressed for modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union, saying a new deal would benefit both sides.
The renewal of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal – or at least some new financial support for hosting the refugees – will also be on the agenda.
Turkey also favors renewing the deal. However, it has complained that while it upheld its end of the pact, the EU did not, including not fully providing €6 billion ($7.1 billion) in aid and breaking pledges on visa liberalization.
Turkey hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world.
EU leaders might set a durable and credible de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean as a precondition for these advantages.
Turkey and Greece have sparred over disputed maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has stressed negotiations towards fair sharing and a win-win agreement while decrying Athens’ efforts to turn a bilateral issue into one between Turkey and the EU.
At the invitation of Charles Michel, US President Joe Biden will also join EU leaders to give a positive message on his commitment to the transatlantic agenda.
The leaders will also shortly talk about EU-Russia relations, which have recently deteriorated over the imprisonment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny.