The Associated Press

European Union leaders and their large number of diplomats and advisers met for two days of face-to-face meetings in Portugal on Friday to reaffirm their belief that the COVID-19 threat to the continent is easing in the face of the accelerating adoption of Vaccines wears off.

However, the pandemic was a constant presence. This year, the heads of state and government met in person for the first time and met in a 19th-century customs building on the banks of the river in the picturesque city of Porto on the Atlantic coast. Face masks hid their smiles, but they enthusiastically pounded their elbows and fists and chatted. They sat separately without a table in a large hall and balanced wads of paper on their laps, a small plastic water bottle at their feet.

“The (pandemic) recovery is still at an early stage,” admitted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her opening speech.

Numerous police officers, staff and journalists at the summit wore masks and had to undergo PCR tests before they were allowed to participate.

The summit hopes to repair some of the economic damage the pandemic has wreaked on the bloc. In a late addition, EU leaders will also discuss proposals to share COVID-19 vaccine technology to accelerate the end of the pandemic for the whole world.

On Saturday, leaders will be videoconferencing an unprecedented meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country needs more help in the face of a devastating virus flood – and who can pave the way for an elusive bilateral trade deal.

EU leaders seem interested in “conveying a sense of normalcy and slowly returning to normal,” said Antonio Barroso, political analyst at Teneo.

This is an important consideration for southern EU countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece, where tourism is an economic pillar.

Despite a slow start to its vaccination campaign, the EU has passed the 150 million vaccination milestone and expects to achieve what it calls “adequate community immunity” in two months. The European Commission has proposed easing travel restrictions on the block this summer.

But who can travel when and where remains a tricky question for Europeans. The pandemic improvements have been inconsistent across the continent and many EU citizens continue to face restrictions on the coronavirus. In a political allusion to these concerns, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not travel to Portugal.

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela was also absent as he was in quarantine after his wife tested positive.

The summit caused a sensation in Porto with 200,000 inhabitants, whose many hotels have been closed since last spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In the face of the pandemic, which is exposing inequalities and causing the bloc greater difficulty, the talks will examine how to ensure that EU citizens’ rights to employment promotion, gender equality and social services are protected.

“COVID has taken the covers off and exposed the loopholes,” says Laura Rayner, policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank. “So many people have needed assistance through no fault of their own.”

The EU is aiming to endorse three main objectives in Porto: an EU employment rate of at least 78%, at least 60% of adults attending training courses each year and a reduction in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 Millions of people, including 5 million children.

The pursuit of social protection has created some tension. Last month, eleven EU governments welcomed Porto’s efforts, but warned central EU authorities not to interfere in national politics.

Plans for a personal EU-India summit in Porto failed after Modi canceled his trip due to the pandemic. However, the talks on Saturday are the first time that an Indian head of state has taken part in a meeting with all EU heads of state and government.

Talks with Modi are important as India and the EU spent six years trying to negotiate a free trade agreement before giving up in 2013. The sensitive issues included vehicle parts and digital privacy.

Amnesty International is holding a human rights vigil in India ahead of the EU-India summit in Porto, Portugal, on Thursday 6 May 2021. (AP Photo / Francisco Seco)

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