The European Commission is holding a high level meeting today (Tuesday) in Brussels to coordinate the response to the ebola crisis.
The Commission was given powers over public health under the Lisbon Treaty including powers to “take initiative to promote Member State coordination” and establish “guidelines and indicators, organise exchange of best practices, and prepare the necessary elements for periodic monitoring and evaluation”.
The UK has set up screening at London Heathrow and Gatwick airports and at the London Eurostar terminal. However, the absence of direct flights into these airports from the affected West African countries means that people arriving in the UK who are most at risk of being in contact with the virus will arrive via Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, and Charles de Gaulle in Paris.
This creates an additional problem for UK staff looking to screen possible carriers and indeed a potential legal hurdle should the UK want to impose restrictions on entry.
The Dublin Agreement means that anyone who enters the EU – and specifically the Schengen Area – must be assessed in their country of arrival. This is frequently southern European countries closest to the departure country or closer ‘hub’ airports. Any ‘internal’ travel, as movement between EU member states is considered, will not be scrutinised by border agencies.
According to the European Commission, discussions are on-going on whether there is an added value in screening incoming travellers at EU borders. For many, this demonstrates how even in matters of public health, considered to be a sole competence of MPs at Westminster and devolved assemblies, the EU has taken a firm grasp.
The coordination and management of actions to combat any ebola crisis is being discussed within the European Health Security Committee with a view to exchanging information and ensuring that any national measures are complementary and co-ordinated.
There has been little talk of the role the European Commission has taken during the first few weeks of the virus making its way out of continental Africa. But it seems like the coordination of border strategies may well stem directly from Brussels.
In addition, any vaccine or treatment would officially have to be first approved by the European Medicines Agency which, according to a statement from the European Commission, ‘stands ready to cooperate with the Commission and Member States to facilitate the availability of any treatment’: in short, the approval process would need to pass through an agency external to the UK authorities.
A spokesman from the Cabinet Office confirmed that there would be a meeting of the COBRA committee today which where the ebola situation would be discussed but said Downing Street was unaware of the Brussels meeting and not confirm if anyone from the UK government would be attending.
A European Commission spokesman, however, confirmed that the UK representative would be Jane Ellison MP, Minister for Public Health.