Europe returns to travel bans amid spread of Omicron cases

Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

Travel restrictions have been spreading fast over the past few days, both in the UK (where as of tomorrow morning, everyone entering the country will have to self-isolate for at least two days, no matter if they’re vaccinated or not) — and in a number of European countries, as governments scramble to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant.

We’ll look at the latest measures and how shortlived the EU’s ambition was to move away from country-based travel bans to a more individual approach based on people’s vaccination status.

On the Brexit front, the temperature has been rising once again in the Franco-British spat over migrants crossing the Channel. The UK home secretary was disinvited from a meeting of European interior ministers in Calais yesterday, after PM Boris Johnson vexed President Emmanuel Macron by publishing a letter calling for joint maritime patrols.

The conclusion of the meeting: Get the European Commission to negotiate a new migration agreement between the UK and the bloc in the coming weeks.

In gig worker news, we look at how the ride-hailing companies are fighting back EU draft rules that would force them to put drivers on payroll — one of the reasons Uber is no longer available in Brussels.

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Omicron scare

Europe is scrambling to respond to the latest variant of Covid-19, imposing travel restrictions from southern African countries as the Omicron strain has been detected in at least a half-dozen EU countries, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

The Netherlands is among the countries with the highest known number of the Omicron variant after at least 13 positive cases were recorded among 624 incoming passengers from Johannesburg to Schiphol airport on Friday.

The detection of the Omicron strain comes days after the European Commission said it would no longer impose travel restrictions for regions as long as travellers had valid Covid-19 passports. Brussels changed course on Friday, calling on its member states to suspend all flights from the region.

This swift reversal in the face of a variant which the World Health Organization says is “very disturbing”, repeats one of the salutary lessons of the pandemic: nothing is certain for long.

Israel yesterday became the first country to close its borders to all incoming travel, a decision likely to have repercussions across the developed world.

EU non-member Switzerland also tightened restrictions over the weekend, prompting the World Trade Organization to postpone its biennial ministerial meeting due to start today in Geneva. Under the new Swiss restrictions, travellers from Belgium, where the first case of Omicron was detected in Europe, have to quarantine for 10 days even if vaccinated. Most of the EU delegation would have been affected by this measure.

Hugo de Jonge, Dutch health minister, said the Netherlands would consult with EU countries about what travel restrictions should follow in Europe. Incoming German chancellor Olaf Scholz said “nothing was off the table” to tackle the latest wave but stopped short of calling for domestic lockdown measures.

“There’s been a window of probably about two weeks conservatively that this virus has been spreading,” Andrew Pekosz, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the New York Times.

Even before the detection of the Omicron variant, the Dutch had moved ahead with one of the toughest lockdowns in the EU, tightening rules so non-essential shops must close from 5pm until 5am for at least two weeks.

De Jonge said it was “conceivable” the strain was present in other parts of the Netherlands. Dutch health authorities will continue analysis of positive cases, while calls for stringent measures across Europe are likely to grow.

Chart du jour: Waning immunity

Chart showing that in parts of Europe, large numbers of adults were still unprotected from the virus as the wave of winter infections took off

European states have been slow in rolling out boosters and have focused their campaigns on the elderly and medically vulnerable. Efforts are picking up in France, Germany and Italy. (More here)

Uber pushback

Lobbyists for the ride-hailing industry are set to push back against new draft proposals aimed at giving gig workers employee status, when they meet EU officials tomorrow, writes Javier Espinoza in Brussels.

Traffic in the Belgian capital was seriously disrupted last week amid protests from Uber drivers who were effectively left jobless as of Friday by a court order that banned the service in Brussels.

The Belgian ruling reignited the debate over whether gig workers should have the same rights as employees. If you ask EU officials, they are leaning towards a ‘yes’, judging by a leaked memo the FT is reporting on here.

Now, the ride hailing apps are pushing back.

In Brussels, Uber is asking users via its app to sign a petition calling for an urgent reform of Belgian taxi laws that date back to 1995. At an EU level, MoveEU, a trade body representing Bolt, FreeNow and Uber, is scheduled to meet tomorrow with commission executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager, who is overseeing the draft legislation.

People familiar with the points of discussions told Europe Express they will press Vestager on the following points:

  • Legal uncertainty: The draft says that the criteria to classify workers as employees will be defined by member states. But the companies are worried this would lead to a lack of legal certainty for platforms or platform workers. “Thousands of legal cases across member states could be the end of the single market,” said a person who will take part in the discussions with Vestager.

  • Job losses: An obligation to employ drivers as full-time workers, the trade body will argue, would lead to a substantial drop in the number of ride-hailing drivers because of costs related to such a move in many western European countries.

  • Freedom fighters: Another reason why the full employee status would backfire, the trade group will argue, is that many of the drivers enjoy the flexibility of working part-time and deciding when and if to show up to work.

What to watch today

  1. The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, opens a special session to push forward the idea of a treaty covering pandemics. The concept, proposed last year by European Council president Charles Michel, would seek to boost global co-operation in future health crises.

  2. The European parliament’s trade committee votes on the creation of an international instrument for reciprocal market access for public procurement.

  3. World powers and Iran return to Vienna for a last-ditch effort to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, but few expect a breakthrough. (Here is the Iranian view.)

. . . and later this week

  1. Nato foreign ministers meet in Riga tomorrow

  2. EU energy ministers meet in Brussels on Thursday

  3. On Thursday, the European Court of Justice’s advocate-general issues opinions on a data protection case against Facebook and on Hungary and Poland’s appeal against the new mechanism linking EU funds to the rule of law

Notable, Quotable

  • Executive whip: Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition and digital policy chief, has urged the European parliament and member states to approve new regulations aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech as a matter of urgency, even if they are imperfect.

  • Turkey hyperinflation: Analysts warn that if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to abandon his fixation with low interest rates, Turkey could be headed towards hyperinflation. The country is heavily reliant on imports and other raw materials that are becoming increasingly expensive as the lira slides.

  • Brazil backlash: Brazil’s foreign minister has attacked the EU for “trade protectionism” and “myopia” after the bloc proposed a ban on agricultural imports from deforested areas, singling out France for particular criticism over farm subsidies.

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