Plans to relax coronavirus border restrictions are being drawn up across Europe, with EU officials pushing for countries to again facilitate the free movement of people and goods – despite concerns of a second wave of infection.
The European Commission issued guidance on Wednesday urging member states with a “similar overall risk profile” to replace “blanket restrictions” on free movement with “more targeted measures”.
The EU’s calls for a phased reopening of borders comes amid anticipation of a looming recession “of historic proportions” across the bloc, with concerned senior officials pushing to resuscitate the continent’s highly profitable tourism industry in time for summer.
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Describing the crisis as “a shock without precedent since the Great Depression” ahead of the guidance’s publication, economic affairs commissioner Paolo Gentili insisted: ”We will have a tourist season this summer, even if it’s with security measures and limitations.”
Tourism accounts for 10 per cent of the bloc’s GDP, and a number of governments have announced in the past week that they will lift border restrictions for fellow member states in the coming days and weeks.
Italy appeared to jump the gun somewhat on the EU’s desired coordinated and phased approach, announcing on Saturday that it would throw open its borders to EU and Schengen Area tourists on 3 June and remove the 14-day quarantine for all new international arrivals.
The first European country to impose a lockdown on its citizens, Italy’s tourism industry is worth some 13 per cent of its GDP, and the move was reportedly cautiously welcomed by embattled hotel owners.
It came as Austria declared it would reopen its borders with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary on 15 June – the same date the renewed EU ban on international travel from outside the bloc is currently due to end.
Germany, which entered recession yesterday, has also announced it will open its border with Denmark in the coming days, extending this to its frontiers with France, Austria and Switzerland on 15 June, when it may also do so to non-bordering countries.
In an apparent rebuke to Italy, Germany urged its citizens not to travel abroad until that date, while foreign minister Heiko Maas called on Poland and the Czech Republic to also fully reopen their borders to allow supply chains to resume.
However, the Czech Republic has said there are no negotiations with Munich because Germany’s coronavirus situation is not as stable as its other neighbours. Poland has this week extended its strict border controls for another month.
Germany’s planned relaxing of border restrictions came despite a rise in new coronavirus cases, with the country’s public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute saying that while R had been above 1 for several consecutive days, it was not a significant cause for concern.
“We are very confident and satisfied that all our measures and our vast restrictions of the last weeks are successful,” a German minister told Deutsch Welle. “We are successful in our containment policy with regard to the pandemic.”
While cautious, France has also called for a coordinated European reopening. But it could make decisions “that protect the French” regarding countries “where the virus is still active,” interior minister Christophe Castaner said on Saturday.
On Friday, Slovenia became the first European country to open its borders to all EU citizens, with the prime minister declaring an end to the country’s coronavirus epidemic despite new infections still being reported.
It came as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia created the EU’s first coronavirus “travel bubble”, opening their borders to each other.
Lithuania’s prime minister Saulius Skvernelis labelled the decision “an opportunity for businesses to reopen, and a glimmer of hope for the people that life is getting back to normal”.
In its new guidance, the EU said it was “important not only to put the economy back on the path to full recovery, but also for social and family considerations”, adding: “Many families have endured long periods of separation to help stem the tide of the virus.”
Initial reports suggest the majority of member states will be keen to comply with the EU’s stated aims.
In contrast, the UK is mulling introducing a mandatory 14-week quarantine for the first time during the pandemic, with Boris Johnson last week “serving notice that it will soon be the time” to do so.
Some 18.1 million people arrived in the UK between 1 January and when lockdown began on 23 March. Figures released to Labour MP Stephen Doughty show that just 273 of these arrivals were formally quarantined.
Additional reporting by agencies