EU ministers discuss rise in COVID-19 cases, Belarus border crisis

Bloc has underestimated challenge of vaccine hesitancy, says Slovenian top diplomat.

EU ministers discuss rise in COVID-19 cases, Belarus border crisis

The EU ministers gathered on Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the bloc’s response to the rising number of COVID-19 infections, the EU-UK relations, and the crisis at the EU-Belarus border.

According to the official agenda, the ministers in charge of EU affairs will prepare for the EU leaders’ summit in December and discuss the most recent developments that impact EU politics.

“In that framework, we will debate the COVID-19 coordination,” Gasper Dovzan, Slovenian foreign affairs minister representing the turning presidency of the Council of the EU, told reporters on the way to the meeting.

“There are considerable challenges on this front," he said, adding: "Many underestimated the challenge” of the vaccine hesitancy.

“We have to continue with efforts to overcome vaccination hesitancy, to fight fake news on side effects and on the consequences, and of course, to encourage citizens to get vaccinated in order to protect the health systems and maintain the internal market,” Dovzan added.

The ministers are not expected to take decisions on the COVID-19 crisis, but their guidance is particularly important since the European Commission is set to update its recommendations later this week on travel within the bloc, including new rules on the digital COVID pass and booster vaccines.

Foreign affairs

European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, in charge of post-Brexit negotiations, will join the ministers to talk about the bloc’s relations with the UK amid the dispute over trade in Northern Ireland, as well as the fisheries row between France and the UK.

“We are all committed to continuing working on a functional relationship with the UK,” Dovzan explained, adding that the bloc could show flexibility but had “to stick to already achieved agreements”.

The ministers will debate the migration crisis at the bloc’s borders with Belarus as well.

Ahead of the meeting, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Arnoldas Pranckevicius said his government looked forward to the European Commission’s proposals to be announced later on Tuesday that “we hope will include also changes to the Schengen border code, as well as other measures necessary for the member states to mitigate and address such hybrid attacks in the future.”

He also urged a new round of sanctions against the Belarusian regime and stressed the importance of providing access to international organizations to bring humanitarian aid to the migrants in Belarus and to help their repatriation.

Pranckevicius mentioned that the ministers will talk about the recent tensions in Bosnia Herzegovina that are of “great concern.”

“We stand for a single and independent Bosnia Herzegovina and its future in the European Union,” he said.

Among other topics on the agenda, the ministers will also prepare for the EU-Africa summit in February, and discuss the high energy prices, as well as the rule of law report on Italy, Croatia, Southern Cyprus, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Hüseyin Demir