Brussels drops lockdown exit plan after anger from capitals

The European Commission was forced by angry EU governments on Tuesday to drop plans to present a “roadmap” for ending the coronavirus lockdowns.

Governments made clear that the plans from President Ursula von der Leyens Commission would send a dangerous signal when they are still urging millions of citizens to stay at home to save lives.

The Commissions embarrassing U-turn highlighted tensions over lockdowns between the EU executive and member governments. Brussels has been keen to play a coordinating role in managing the response to the coronavirus crisis after countries initially imposed a chaotic array of unilateral measures.

But in recent days countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark have already laid out plans to ease some restrictions. Other countries like Spain and Italy, hit hardest by the virus that has killed thousands across the Continent, have made clear that severe limits on movement wont end in the immediate future.

The Commissions chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, announced at his regular midday press briefing that commissioners would on Wednesday “focus on the roadmap to exit, which will be adopted tomorrow.” Von der Leyen herself would brief reporters on the plan, Mamer said.

Some capitals, anxious to loosen tight restrictions on their citizens and revive their economies even a little, are not waiting for a green light from Brussels.

Shortly thereafter, a senior Commission official told POLITICO that the proposed exit guidelines had already been circulated to national officials and “will be published tomorrow.”

But by early evening, the Commission had backtracked, saying in an email that commissioners would only hold “an orientation debate on a roadmap to exit the restrictive measures” and that von der Leyens news conference was postponed until the plan had been adopted.

Adoption of the plan has now been postponed until “after Easter,” Mamer told POLITICO in a phone call Tuesday evening.

Officials said a group of EU member governments had told the Commission in no uncertain terms that it was on the wrong track, at a time when many countries are still struggling with the impact of the virus on their public health systems and populations.

“We criticized them for not being able to consult [on] this with member states in an appropriate way,” said one senior diplomat.

Another diplomat summed up the confusion by sending a text message with a GIF of a spinning head, noting that this was not the first Commission U-turn on the issue of exit strategy.

The Commission had pitched its plan as a coordination effort to stop countries easing lockdown measures too quickly, as announcements by some capitals caused irritation in Brussels.

“If anything these restrictive measures have only [just] begun to show proper results,” said a 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.”

Capitals in charge

Von der Leyen promised last month the bloc 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.”

But some capitals, anxious to loosen tight restrictions on their citizens and revive their economies even a little, are not waiting for a green light from Brussels.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Monday outlined a timetable to gradually ease his countrys lockdown, with nonessential 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

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