The European Commission will on Wednesday announce a “roadmap to exit” the coronavirus lockdowns across Europe — but some governments are not waiting for instructions from Brussels.
With a variety of restrictions in place across the bloc, Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic this week each laid out plans to start easing some of their rules and begin the process of returning to normality.
The moves have sparked irritation within the Commission.
“If anything these restrictive measures have only [just] begun to show proper results,” said one Commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is of essence now that member states persist a few weeks more and then gradually start to relax them,” the official said, adding that “exit steps need to be smart and coordinated as much as possible throughout Europe.”
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in March promised the EU would seek a coordinated exit strategy following a videoconference of EU leaders. At the time she warned a failure to coordinate would “undermine the effectiveness of the tough measures we took.”
Brussels’ exit strategy on Wednesday is expected to include guidance on coordinating a gradual rollback of public health measures.
Some officials observed it was national governments who asked for a European game plan.
“Formally that’s weird, since it was the Council that tasked the Commission to develop a strategy,” said a senior Commission official when asked about some governments beginning to lift restrictions, while noting that the announced relaxations are “not a lot.”
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Monday outlined a timetable for his country to gradually ease its lockdown, with non-essential shops allowed to reopen with strict hygiene controls starting April 14. From May 1, all stores, shopping malls and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen — but other services, as well as restaurants and hotels, must stay shuttered until mid-May, with a final decision to be taken in mid-April, Kurz said.
The Danish government announced this week that it will reopen day care and elementary schools on April 15.
Starting April 9, the Czech Republic will allow some shops — including those that sell building materials or bicycles — to be reopened.
Brussels’ exit strategy on Wednesday is expected to include guidance on coordinating a gradual rollback of public health measures and moves that impact the functioning of the internal market, according to a diplomat briefed on the plans.
But there is a recognition that ultimately it is up to governments to determine how they lift restrictions.
Member countries “have to decide on their own and to announce to their public anyway, whether and what they adopt … in the end they’re responsible to find the suitable timing for them as all member states are in different stages of the pandemic progressing. This will not change, when the [guidelines from the Commission] will be published [Wednesday],” the senior Commission official said.
“But it’s for sure not polite towards the EU,” they added.
Formally, the Commission said it is analyzing the governments’ decisions.
Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said on Tuesday that Austria and Denmark both informed Commission and other member countries about their moves.
“We do not have yet a fully-fledged analysis of these strategies, but what I can already say is that we understand that these strategies are very gradual, will be implemented step-by-step, which is indeed one important element that we will certainly be highlighting as well [on Wednesday],” he said.
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