Travelers from outside Europe will soon be unable to enter the EU, under a new plan aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus and preventing any added burden to national health systems.
Officials in Brussels hope that closing the blocs external borders would convince EU countries to avoid imposing restrictions within the EU. But so far, there is no sign that governments such as Hungary and the Czech Republic that have imposed border controls with other EU countries are intending to reverse the measures.
The goal of the proposed external border shutdown is to limit the spread of the outbreak in both directions, said one EU diplomat, adding that it is also aimed at “reducing pressure on our health system which cant welcome in this moment foreign nationals for non-urgent care.”
Heres POLITICOs guide to the EU border shutdown:
What is being proposed?
The European Commission has proposed a temporary restriction of non-essential travel from third countries into the EU+ area (the Commission does not like the phrase “travel ban”). That area includes nearly all EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The move could include Ireland — which has an opt-out from the Schengen Agreement — and the United Kingdom if they decide to align.
Who proposed it?
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put forward the initiative on Monday. European heads of state and government are discussing it Tuesday evening.
“In the current circumstances, with the coronavirus now widespread throughout the EU, the external border regime offers the opportunity of concerted action among Member States to limit the global spread of the virus,” reads the Commissions proposal to governments, in a plea for EU countries to act in unison.
“A temporary travel restriction could only be effective if decided and implemented by Schengen States for all external borders at the same time and in a uniform manner,” it said.
Does the EU have the power to do this?
Brussels is proposing the idea, but it does not have the power to implement it. The Commission is asking each government to introduce its own restrictions on entering their country from outside the EU+ area. Brussels wants EU heads of state and government to “endorse” the plan and pledge to coordinate as much as possible for harmonized implementation.
But the Commission can do very little on enforcement: When asked what would happen if they decided not to follow suit, Commission spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz said that the border restrictions would be a coordinated set of “national decisions” and therefore enforceable only by member countries under national law.
Whom will it apply to?
EU citizens and citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland will be permitted to enter the EU+ area to return home.
Non-EU+ citizens would temporarily not be allowed into the bloc, but there are exemptions. According to von der Leyens proposal, the restrictions would not apply to people transporting goods and other transport staff.
Long-term residents under the Long-term Residence Directive or who hold long-term visas, are family members of EU nationals, as well as people traveling for “imperative” family reasons will be allowed to enter. Health care professionals, health researchers and elderly-care professionals would also be exempt.
Frontier workers commuting legally into an EU nation from neighboring countries would be allowed in. There are also exemptions for diplomats, military personnel and humanitarian workers. Moreover, the restriction would also not apply to passengers in transit and asylum seekers.
How will it work?
Much remains uncertain about how the new measures would be implemented, since every member country would have to put its own rules in place.
How long will it last?
Von der Leyen said the restrictions “should be in place for an initial period of 30 days, which can be prolonged as necessary.” The Commissions communication notes that possible prolongations depend “on further developments.”
Will it apply to UK citizens?
They are still to be treated in the same way as EU citizens until the end of 2020. They can therefore continue traveling to the Continent.
How about goods?
Much like the Commission, countries are keen to stress that nothing should upend a steady flow of goods and plan to steer clear of restrictions on freight transport. “There shall be no restrictions on the movement of goods, regardless the country of origin,” said Jovita Neliupšienė, Lithuanias ambassador to the EU, adding that her country “fully supports” the EUs approach.
Some governments are currently highly concerned about the impact of internal border controls on the flow of people and goods, with Neliupšienė pointing to the hundreds of Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians “stuck in trucks, cars and buses” on the Polish-German border.
Are EU governments on board?
Some EU governments have welcomed the plan.