Trade

Coronavirus border controls imperil EU freedoms

The European Commission on Monday implored national capitals to act with restraint in imposing new border controls after several EU members, including Germany, unilaterally ordered an array of restrictions in a frantic bid to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

The border measures threaten to undermine the EUs four fundamental freedoms — the movement of goods, services, capital and people — and to seriously destabilize the blocs treasured single market, as well as to render meaningless the Schengen border-free travel zone.

The new internal checks also show how the coronavirus crisis has also called into question other benefits of EU membership for the unions 440 million citizens, such as the blue European health cards that entitle residents of any EU country to access health care anywhere else in the bloc — including in the U.K., which is still in a transition period following Brexit.

Separately, the EU is planning to impose a 30-day ban on “non-essential travel” into the Schengen zone from outside countries. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel said at a news conference that they had informed other G7 leaders of their plans during a conference call. “We will have to take measures to limit and slow down the spread of the virus,” von der Leyen said.

The border measures taken by national capitals have prompted speculation that some governments are acting not so much to stop the spread of the virus, but to block citizens of other EU countries from crossing boundaries to access doctors and hospitals — a potentially severe test of EU solidarity.

The guidelines on border measures came as the EU and national governments wrestled with a crisis unlike any other in modern times.

In a four-and-a-half page set of guidelines published on Monday, the Commission effectively conceded defeat in any effort to prevent new internal border controls.

Instead, Brussels sought to persuade EU capitals to act judiciously by not imposing measures that would hamper the single market — particularly the shipment of vital medical supplies — and by not denying medical care to EU citizens who might appear at border crossings showing signs of illness.

The Commission also tried to persuade capitals that border restrictions would not necessarily help contain the virus given that it has now spread to every EU country.

“The assessment that we have is that the virus is, at the moment that we speak, already present in all European member states, and therefore that closing borders is not necessarily the best way of ensuring that we can contain further the outbreak within the European Union,” the Commissions chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said at the EU executives daily news conference. “At the same time, we recognize that member states have been acting in accordance with the information that they have,” he said, in a bid to protect their own citizens.

Thierry Breton said that he expected a recession to take hold in the EU this year. | Kenzo Tribouillard

Mamer conceded that member countries had not acted entirely in keeping with the Commissions wishes, and other officials said Brussels did not yet have a full grasp of the different border measures imposed by capitals — though legally EU countries are supposed to inform the Commission before taking any such steps.

“We are in a very fluid context, and what we have been saying is that these measures in order to be effective need to be very well coordinated and implemented,” Mamer said. “But we have also been saying that governments have a responsibility to protect the health of their citizens.”

The guidelines on border measures came as the EU and national governments wrestled with a crisis unlike any other in modern times, with citizens frightened over the possibility of infection, health care systems at risk of being overwhelmed, and widespread containment measures that have paralyzed commercial activity, with the full economic shock still to come.

The EUs commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said Monday that he expected a recession to take hold in the EU this year. Commission officials said they had not formally updated their forecasts but that Bretons prediction was likely correct.

The European Council scheduled another emergency summit by videoconference of EU heads of state and government for Tuesday afternoon. And leaders of the G7 economic powerhouses were scheduled to hold a conference call Monday afternoon amid growing signs of tension, including reports that U.S. President Donald Trump sought to buy a German company working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

The Commission noted that EU countries could carry out health checks and restrictive measures on those infected with coronavirus without imposing new border control regimes.

On the border issue, while the Commission tried to avoid a direct conflict with the national governments, its new guidelines made clear just how problematic it finds some of the new restrictions.

“In order to avoid shortages and avoid that the social and economic difficulties that all European countries are already experiencing worsen, maintaining the functioning of the Single Market is key,” the Commission wrote in the guidelines, which are not legally enforceable. “Member States should therefore not undertake measures that jeopardize the integrity of the Single Market for goods, in particular of supply chains, or engage in any unfair practices.”

The guidelines sought to remind capitals that they “must always admit their own citizens and residents and facilitate transit of other EU citizens and residents that are returning home.”

And it also reiterated the rules for imposing such restrictions, even as capitals appeared to be ignoring those requirements, including that any restrictions on the transport of goods and people on the grounds of public health be transparent and have clearly spelled out reasons justified by medical experts, that they be proportionate; non-discriminaRead More – Source