Italy’s Mario Draghi defended his decision to break ranks with other EU members on travel rules, a move that highlighted the bloc’s difficulties with the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
During an EU leaders’ summit on Thursday, Draghi explained his government’s move to require a negative coronavirus test result from incoming EU travelers, including those with a digital certificate showing they’re vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus.
The measure was criticized by EU officials for being poorly communicated and coordinated and has ignited fears that with the new highly-infectious Omicron variant, member states will resume taking unilateral actions — undermining the digital COVID pass that until now has allowed for free travel throughout the bloc.
“The vaccine works but we now know that is not enough, we need to continue with face masks and other measures … but we have to do that keeping a degree of coordination and avoiding to ignite vaccine hesitancy,” said an EU diplomat.
Officials in the U.K. — Europe’s current hotspot for Omicron — estimate that each person infected by the variant goes on to infect three to five other people on average. This compares to a rate of between 1 and 1.2 for the Delta variant that drove the last wave of infections.
The threat posed by the variant, which could become the dominant strain in Europe by early January, is putting the EU’s COVID-19 response under pressure, particularly when it comes to preserving freedom of movement.
Italy isn’t the only country to impose a testing requirement. Ireland, Portugal and Greece have also imposed similar requirements.
But diplomats said that they were caught by surprise by Rome’s move, especially since the prime minister is seen as an EU stalwart, remembered for his daring defense of the bloc’s common currency at the height of the debt crisis during his time at the head of the European Central Bank, making his divergence from the European consensus on travel all the more unusual.
Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently signed a treaty with Draghi to step up cooperation between France and Italy, made clear he didn’t think much of the Italian decision.
He said France did not plan to impose tests on travelers from other EU countries as it would affect free movement in the bloc’s borderless zone. He also questioned the logic of trying to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant through such measures.
“The moment a certain variant is in one of the European countries, it spreads very rapidly to others,” he at a post-summit news conference with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz early on Friday morning.
Scholz expressed a similar view to Macron.“Freedom of movement in Europe is important,” he said.
At a pre-summit meeting, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo voiced concerns about the introduction of coronavirus tests on EU travelers. He called for a uniform approach across Europe.
“With the digital COVID certificate, we have a good European solution,” said De Croo. “Let’s try to stick to this European solution.”
His concerns were echoed by Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who said that countries risked undermining people’s willingness to get jabbed if they didn’t distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated for travel.
Behind closed doors
An EU official familiar with the discussions said that inside the room, other countries also called for restraint in unilateral travel decisions during the summit meeting.
Both Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that one-sided travel restrictions should be avoided in favor of coordination. And Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said the digital COVID certificate helped guarantee freedom of movement in the EU.
Explaining his move, Draghi said that EU coordination needed to be guided by caution, according to another EU official. In his closed-door remarks, the prime minister cited the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant as a driver in his decision.
“The Omicron variant is less widespread in Italy and it is necessary to maintain the advantage to protect the health system,” he said, according to this second official. “This is the reason behind the decision to have those entering Italy taking the tests. Coordination at the EU level must be guided by the principle of maximum caution.”
Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Draghi said that in Italy more than 85 percent of the population over 12 have received two doses and about 20 percent have also had a third shot.
Italy, the biggest recipient of the EU’s pandemic recovery funds, has had to deal with 20 years of a flatlining economy, as well as an enormous debt burden — now amounting to around 150 percent of its GDP. The country was the first hit by the virus in Europe and has been one of the most proactive nations in its public health measures in an attempt to avoid economically damaging lockdowns. It was one of the first to require a vaccine certificate, and it has a vaccine mandate for certain public sector workers.
Draghi said it was necessary for Italy to not waste the sacrifices it made to keep cases under control. He recalled the 135,000 Italians who died from COVID-19, as well as the country’s pandemic-stricken economy — which saw a 9 percent hit to GDP in 2020.
But in a concession to a united approach on travel, Draghi ultimately did agree to the European Council conclusions on COVID-19, published during the summit, in which capitals call for continued coordination on travel. In the conclusions, the leaders agreed that any additional measures should be based on objective criteria and shouldn’t hamper free movement inside the bloc too much.
While countries struggled to put forward a united front against Omicron, the situation across the Channel stands as a stark example of the pressing danger that the bloc faces. The U.K. reported a record 88,376 new cases on Thursday as Omicron, which is able to sidestep the immunity provided by a regular course of vaccination, spreads like wildfire.
In Denmark, the EU’s current hotspot for the Omicron variant, officials from the national disease agency estimate that Omicron will overtake Delta as the dominant variant as early as this week.
Countries didn’t want to kick up too much of a fuss about Italy’s decision, said another EU diplomat. “Health is a national competence. And it might be us next.”
Hanne Cokelaere, Hans von der Burchard and Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with comments from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.