Social distancing at the social summit
In Porto, EU adapts to new pandemic rhythm.
PORTO, Portugal — The mandatory accreditation badge now requires an additional sticker — demonstrating proof of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, negative for COVID, within the last 72 hours.
The routine security screening — all metal out of your pockets — is now preceded by a thermal face scan to verify body temperature: Keep the mask on please, now step forward, a bit more forward, a bit back.
The EU returned to full-format summitry on Friday, but with a heavy dose of pandemic precautions and preoccupation, which meant strict social distancing at a leaders’ meeting focused on social policy.
The two days of talks, organized by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU, mark the first gathering of heads of state and government with journalists in attendance since February 2020, following more than a year of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
During that time, the leaders held eight meetings via videoconference, and four in-person summits in limited format with the size of their own delegations severely restricted. This included the marathon, five-day summit last July in Brussels where they agreed on a historic €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery plan.
The pandemic has severely disrupted the functioning of democracy, for the EU and in countries around the world, and it forced the cancellation of numerous high-profile events. Among those was an EU-China summit that Chancellor Angela Merkel had planned in Leipzig as a centerpiece of Germany’s Council presidency, and an EU-Africa summit championed by European Council President Charles Michel.
Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa pushed hard to keep the Porto summit on the calendar, partly to show that with the pace of vaccinations picking up, things are starting to get back to normal.
And, indeed, there was a familiar feel to some of the bureaucracy and logistical headaches — technicians from host broadcaster RTP grumbling about problems with their badges in line outside the accreditation office, for example.
But as the leaders arrived Friday in Porto, under a shining sun with a brisk breeze blowing east off the Atlantic Ocean, it was clear nothing was really normal, and perhaps won’t be for quite some time.
Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and European Parliament President David Sassoli, wore masks to a ceremony where they received keys to the city.
And as von der Leyen gave a speech Friday afternoon on social policy, her audience, including other leaders, sat in chairs carefully spaced apart, as if a teacher had separated all the students in class to keep them from whispering to each other.
In the press center, where reporters might normally crowd together, individual desks were spaced out for social distancing. Porto Social Summit masks were distributed in sealed envelopes, and staff circulated periodically to reprimand anyone with a visible nose.
There were also signs that some pandemic practices had become second nature. Elbow bumps that would have seemed an absurd ritual before coronavirus were a matter of routine, with no awkward outreached hands as was the case earlier in the pandemic. Anti-microbial gel flowed as freely and naturally at the entrances and exits as coffee or water in the canteen.
In fact, with Portugal a bit further along than some countries in reopening bars and restaurants, it was so-called normal activity in Porto that seemed weird, like indoor restaurant dining.
The return of reporters also meant the return of the traditional doorstep pitstop that leaders often make to answer a few questions as they arrive
It generated at least one abnormal moment, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took an opportunity during his appearance to rail against the word “gender.”
Asked about whether Hungary opposed gender equality legislation, Orbán seemed briefly confused — not about his own gender, but about the very meaning of the word, and whether it could potentially refer to transgender, which he indicated he would find problematic.
“The fact is that man and woman should be treated equally — it’s easy for us, because this is our principle,” Orbán said. “The only difficultly is to use the term ‘gender,’ because we Christians consider gender as an ideologically motivated expression.
“It’s sometimes something between man and woman,” he continued, adding: “So we always propose instead of saying ‘gender equality,’ to use ‘equality between man and woman,’ but it’s always rejected.”
While some leaders, like Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, gave their traditional doorstep remarks against a background of the city’s terracotta-roofed buildings and steep-sloped streets, the absence of others was a reminder that pandemic conditions persist through much of Europe. Merkel, for instance, said she would not attend given that citizens in Germany remain in lockdown conditions (although observers have noted this is the second social policy summit she has found a reason to skip.)
EU officials also expressed surprise at the small number of Brussels-based journalists who had traveled to Porto, evidence that the climb back to normalcy — in summits, or in life — in many ways has barely just begun.