Paris and Berlin are concerned about the influx of British tourists to southern Europe and are calling for a coordinated effort as the Covid-19 Delta variant continues its inexorable advance across the Continent.
The rise of the Delta variant is rekindling tensions over the management of the European Union's external borders. These divisions, which were much discussed at the beginning of the pandemic, resurfaced during the European summit in Brussels last week. On the one hand, Germany and France want to err on the side of prudence in the face of an influx of British tourists potentially carrying the Delta variant (formerly called the "Indian" variant). On the other hand, southern countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece are anxious to protect their all-important tourist seasons.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Portugal for opening its doors to British tourists both too wide and too soon. In mid-May, Portugal became the only country in the European Union to welcome nationals from across the Channel.
But faced with an increase in the number of contaminations with the Delta variant, which has become dominant in Portugal, Lisbon was forced to tighten the screws. Authorities introduced new health restrictions on Friday, notably imposing a 14-day quarantine on Britons who have not been fully vaccinated.
Spain is also backtracking and will again require a negative PCR test from the British, who had been exempt since late May. Like Portugal, Spain had rolled out the red carpet for British tourists, who did not even need to present a PCR test – unlike European nationals.
To slow the spread of the Delta variant, which is much more contagious than the Alpha (formerly known as the "English" variant), Merkel wants to go even further and tighten the conditions of entry to the entire Schengen area.
"This European coordination has very little chance of succeeding," Patrick Martin-Genier, a lecturer at Sciences-Po university in Paris and a specialist in European issues, told FRANCE 24. "There is a divergence here between countries that want to preserve public health and those that want to save their tourist season."
"It must be said that the southern European countries have suffered the most economically from the effects of the pandemic and that a large part of their economic model is based on tourism," added Édouard Simon, director of research at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.
Enter the EU Covid passport
Another country causing discord among Europeans is Greece, which is open to visitors who have been inoculated with vaccines that have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Highly dependent on tourism, Greece allows foreign visitors who have received doses of either the Russian or Chinese vaccines to enter the country.
"First, we must all recognise the same vaccines, those that are authorised by the EMA and fully effective against the latest variants, including the Delta variant. This coordination is also necessary so that our rules are harmonised in terms of opening to third countries; this is the key to making the European ‘Green Pass’ fully effective," French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday.
The European Covid-19 certificate officially comes into use this Thursday and will allow free movement between EU countries.
Legally, each country in Europe is free to decide whether or not to admit tourists who have received vaccines other than the four approved for use on the Continent – Pfizer, Moderna, Astra Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
"We have seen that even between France and Germany, particularly on the issue of cross-border workers, coordination is not always efficient,” Martin-Genier said. “This situation should lead us to consider making public health a European responsibility, but that would only be possible through treaty reform."
"There is no health policy in Europe, but there are health policies that we must be able to coordinate. This is far from easy for the 27 member states," echoed Simon. “But the upside is that it is European leaders are able to have the discussion. The proof: Greece has finally acknowledged the concerns of its partners."
On Monday, Greece effectively bowed to EU pressure and began requiring a PCR test for Russian tourists, even if they are fully vaccinated with Sputnik V.
Despite these coordination efforts, Europe is gearing up for yet another challenge. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Delta variant is expected to "represent 90% of Covid-19 cases in the EU by the end of August".
If the Delta variant is expected to become dominant regardless, why do some countries want to introduce new travel restrictions?
"The idea is to buy time," explained Simon. "We need to allow vaccination campaigns to continue to roll out, and we can see that this is not happening everywhere in Europe."
Indeed, several EU countries are seeing a slowdown in their vaccination efforts. In France, more than 400,000 people received a first dose every day at the beginning of June. But last week only 200,000 people daily were receiving a first dose.
Early scientific data on the effectiveness of vaccines against this Delta variant suggest a very high level of protection. According to a recent study, two doses of Pfizer's vaccine have an estimated efficacy of 87.9 percent. But scientists agree that a single dose of vaccine provides limited protection against the Delta variant.
Today, only one in three Europeans is fully immunised. The Commission's goal remains to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population by the end of July.
This article has been translated from the original in French.