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Statement by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič following the General Affairs Council

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op dinsdag 23 februari 2021.

Thank you. As Minister Zacarias just mentioned, today we prepared this week's virtual meeting of European leaders.

We are all aware that the health situation remains serious in Europe: health systems are under immense pressure; essential restrictions continue to be put in place at great cost for our economy and our citizens; and we face emerging variants of the virus.

Let me make three, crucial points:

First, the Commission - together with Member States - is working hard to boost the supply of vaccines and to ensure that companies comply with their contractual obligations.

We are in constant contact with European associations and vaccine manufacturers with whom we have signed advanced purchase agreements - in order to understand where the bottlenecks in production are.

We will identify with them possible partnerships for upscaling production in Europe and offer our support at all levels.

We welcome that a number of Member States have contacted the Commission with offers of local production capacity and have shared their efforts to bring together industrial stakeholders at national level.

The Commission will ask for the concrete contributions of all Member States at this weeks' Competitiveness Council.

Second, it is essential that national vaccination plans provide the capacity and flexibility to make use of the increased supply of vaccines, as they become available.

So far, 40.7 million doses of vaccine have reached our Member States. We expect an additional 300 million doses of three vaccines that are currently authorised in the EU to arrive in the second quarter of this year.

This requires a large-scale mobilisation of facilities, personnel and logistics.

The third point, where I was joined by Commissioner Reynders, is on free movement and travel within the EU and the need to coordinate our approaches, notably to allow the Single Market to keep functioning smoothly.

It is clear that, during such a pandemic, it may be necessary to put in place certain restrictions that affect free movement.

But we should also remember coordinated solutions that are non-discriminatory and proportionate. Such solutions should be based on the common approach we developed together in the Council Recommendations:

In particular, the exemptions that cover transport workers and cross-border commuters, who are vital for European supply chains and industries.

For the “Green Lanes” system to function on the ground, transport workers should not be required to quarantine and in addition, tests should be the absolute exception. In inevitable situations, rapid antigen tests should be used to speed up the process.

And Member States should avoid imposing blanket bans on travel to or from their territory, as in some cases, we see that they include travel to or from Member States that are in a better epidemiological situation.

Rather we recommend the use of more targeted measures. For example, mandatory quarantine is an effective tool to discourage touristic travel, if properly enforced.

Moving on to other items on today's agenda, we also discussed our relations with the United Kingdom.

As you know, we are working closely with the Council and the European Parliament to allow for the smooth ratification of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

To give the necessary time to complete our ratification procedure, I asked Michael Gove to agree, as interim co-chair of the Partnership Council, to extend the period of the provisional application of the Agreement until 30 April. As you will have seen this afternoon, the UK has accepted this by return of the letter. This is an extension that will allow for the conclusion of the Agreement in all 24 authenticated versions.

We are now ten weeks into the reality of our new relationship with the United Kingdom. We have already seen some of the changes brought about by this. I think it is clear to everyone now that our partnership with the UK does not replicate or resemble its former membership of the EU.

We will continue to keep a watchful eye over the proper application of this Agreement.

Secondly, we stand by our unwavering commitment to the full, proper implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

There will be a meeting of the Joint Committee tomorrow where we will discuss, amongst other things, the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland. We will be going into that meeting with a constructive, solution-driven attitude.

The EU has always been and remains fully committed to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to the proper implementation of the Protocol - protecting the gains of the peace process, maintaining stability, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and preserving the integrity of the Single Market.

At the same time, to make the Protocol work on the ground, we need to act jointly to minimise the impact of Brexit on the everyday lives of all communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

We are therefore open to pragmatic and flexible solutions to facilitate the implementation - in line with the Protocol and EU law.

Thank you very much and I am ready to take your questions.


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