July 17, 2020 / 3:48 PM / a month ago

Virus-free zone? EU leaders hold squeaky-clean summit in empty building

European Union leaders take part in the first face-to-face EU summit since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium July 17, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In almost seven decades of European Union integration, Friday’s summit in Brussels may go down in history as the most hygienic, as leaders gathered in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Holding their first meeting in person since February, the 27 EU leaders sat in a chamber designed for more than 10 times that number, in an almost-empty building where meeting rooms were cleaned every time presidents and prime ministers took a break.

Headphones and microphones were regularly disinfected, filtered air was pumped into the meeting chamber and leaders - wearing a range of sombre and colourful face masks - were asked to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between them.

Summit chairman Charles Michel welcomed leaders into the glass and steel Europa building with an elbow bump, while Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes bowed in salutation before taking her seat at a desk complete with hand sanitizer.

European Commission President Ursula von derv Leyen was also taking no risks, crossing her arms up against her chest as she approached summit colleagues before they began the two-day meeting to agree a coronavirus economic recovery fund.

Dispensing with customary handshakes and cheek pecks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel kept her hands clasped, while Luxembourg’s premier Xavier Bettel tried for a little cheer, sporting a face mask emblazoned with the word Moien, or “good day” in Luxembourgish.

Also gone from the EU headquarters were the more than 700 accredited Brussels-based correspondents, and their radio and TV crews, usually clamouring for news, leaving the huge, marble-clad atrium of the adjoining Justus Lipsius building completely empty.

But with no reporters’ questions for the arriving leaders some looked at ill at ease with their prepared statements to an official camera crew.

“Let me start again,” said Michel on camera after he stammered his opening words.

Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by John Chalmers and Louise Heavens

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