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Europe's week: Omicron spreads and ECJ issues opinion on Hungary-Poland bid

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By Euronews
People wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 walk in downtown Lisbon, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.
People wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 walk in downtown Lisbon, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.   -   Copyright  Ana Brigida/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

It was a week that had everybody talking about a word that didn't exist in most people's world the week before: Omicron.

Detected in South Africa, the coronavirus variant was in Europe several days earlier than previously known and is now circulating throughout the continent.

Governments across the continent established fresh travel bans on flights from southern African countries.

But Dr Jaouad Mahjour, WHO Assistant Director-General, said at this stage restricting flights won't help.

"It is clear that a travel ban cannot stop the circulation of virus and more importantly, this, the travel (ban) can jeopardise the efforts to fight against the outbreak."

The timing is dismal for Europe, which is already gripped by a fresh wave of infections.

Many governments are now contemplating drastically scaling back plans to remain open for the Christmas holidays.

They've learned from the past. All too often, countries have relaxed their guard, thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind them, only to be swamped by another.

So, what's next? Everybody agrees that the vaccination campaigns need to be stepped up.

And even mandatory vaccinations are no longer taboo.

"I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion," Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President said on Wednesday.

Inflation rise persists

In the meantime, the pandemic continues to rattle the economy.

Stock markets had a rollercoaster week, with investors being nervous about the impact of Omicron.

And consumer prices in the eurozone kept rising at a record rate.

The annual inflation rate hit 4.9 percent in November, the highest since records began in 1997, two years before the launch of the euro currency.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Germany's Berenberg Bank, spoke to Euronews and said that the outlook on inflation for the foreseeable future is still uncertain.

"The outlook is unclear near-term. On the one hand, oil prices are lower," Schmieding said. "On the other hand, more people may want to spend money on goods on the internet, and goods are scarce and could go up. So, on inflation, it's an unclear near-term."

He added: "We've seen in previous waves of the pandemic that the pandemic does not change the longer-run trend in inflation. Also the economic impact, including the inflation impact of any wave of the pandemic, has receded from wave to wave. I do expect inflation to come down over the course of next year significantly."

ECJ opinion says no to Hungary-Poland

In other non-COVID news, Hungary and Poland's court bid to stop EU cash handouts from being conditional on respect for rule of law "should be dismissed", according to an opinion issued by the European Court of Justice.

Budapest and Warsaw took their case to the ECJ earlier this year, but on Thursday, the court's advocate general issued an opinion arguing that their attempt should be thrown out.

The advice of the court precedes a full court decision, which is expected within the coming months.

Linking the disbursement of funds to democratic principles was a key part of the EU’s decision last year to push through a massive subsidy programme for the 27 member nations to overcome the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona advised the actions of Hungary and Poland “should be dismissed” and argued that the budget-rule of law link was “adopted on an appropriate legal basis ... and respects the principle of legal certainty.”

The court said in a statement that “compliance with the principles of the rule of law may be vitally important for the sound operation of public finances and the proper implementation of the Union budget."

Poland and Hungary have faced criticism in the EU for years over allegations that they have been eroding judicial and media independence, among other democratic principles. The EU had found itself unable to do much to alter the course of either nation and therefore turned to linking money to their adherence to democratic behaviour.