MEP suggests ‘classification’ system for reopening borders in Europe

Written by Martin Banks on 5 May 2020 in News
News

Belgian deputy Frédérique Ries argued that countries might be classified according to their current rate of infection and mortality.

Photo credit: PA Images


Speaking during a parliamentary committee meeting, Ries suggested that countries with declining numbers of people infected with, or dying from, Coronavirus would be classed as “low” while those with a more stable rate would be deemed a “medium” risk.

Those few EU countries, such as Bulgaria, where rates are still rising would be considered “high risk.”

Ries, a deputy leader of Renew Europe who was in Parliament in person for the hearing, said, “Such a system is not born out of some sort of paranoia about Coronavirus. Rather, this sort of information would be important in terms of opening up borders and for free movement in the coming weeks and months.”


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Such a classification system might also assist travellers who may be considering a holiday destination this summer.

Ries’ proposal, made during a meeting of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on Monday, comes as several Member States, including Belgium and Portugal, have started reopening some business activities as they take their first tentative steps to lifting their Coronavirus lockdowns.

“This sort of information would be important in terms of opening up borders and for free movement in the coming weeks and months” Frédérique Ries MEP

Speaking at the same committee meeting, Miriam Dalli, a Maltese Socialist MEP, said, “We now see some Member States relaxing their constraints but I wonder if these countries have actually met the criteria to lift restrictions because there appears to be several countries, not just Bulgaria, where infections rates are increasing.”

Also speaking via a video link, Hungarian EPP member Edina Toth noted that some experts had warned that it was “too early” to lift restrictions because of “a possible resurgence of the pandemic.”

Spanish Socialist deputy Nicolas Gonzalez Casares suggested a “stress test” be conducted in Member States in order to test the readiness of their health systems to prepare for a possible second wave of the virus later in the year.

But EPP Luxembourg member Christophe Hansen voiced concern about the decision to close borders in Europe during the pandemic, adding, “I am deeply concerned that our freedom of movement is being trampled on by some Member States. It is absurd to close borders if, at the same time, you still have the freedom to go out to shops.”

Cross-border travel will also be debated by the civil liberties committee with EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson on Thursday.

At the start of the outbreak most Member States shut their borders and the European Commission has since said it might be some time before borders can open up again to everyone, stressing it will have to be done on a step-by-step basis depending on the health situation.

“We now see some Member States relaxing their constraints but I wonder if these countries have actually met the criteria to lift restrictions” Miriam Dalli MEP

A recent Commission paper read, "The travel restrictions and border controls currently applied should be lifted once the border regions' epidemiological situation converges sufficiently and social distancing rules are widely and responsibly applied. Restrictions on travel should first be eased between areas with comparably-low reported circulation of the virus.”

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking last month, said, "Once we get control of the virus, the border needs to be opened. But that's in the long term.”

In March, the Commission urged Member States to let “critical frontier workers”, such as in the health or food sector, cross borders. About 1.5 million people live in one EU country and work in another.

Last month the Commission asked Schengen Member States to extend the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU until 15 May.

The executive called for a coordinated approach “as action at the external borders can only be effective if implemented by all EU and Schengen States at all borders, with the same end date and in a uniform manner.”

The travel restriction applies to 30 countries: the ‘EU+ area’, which includes all Schengen Member States (including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania) and the four Schengen Associated States (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland).

European countries have been severely hit by the pandemic, with some of the biggest economies among the top countries worldwide in terms of infections and deaths.

According to the Commission, three conditions must be met in deciding when lockdown measures are eased: spread of the disease must have significantly decreased and stabilised for a sustained period of time; there is sufficient health system capacity for more than only COVID-19 patients and, thirdly, large-scale testing is available in the communities as well as hospitals.

“I am deeply concerned that our freedom of movement is being trampled on by some Member States. It is absurd to close borders if, at the same time, you still have the freedom to go out to shops” Christophe Hansen MEP

In Italy, construction and manufacturing activities reopened in full on Monday. Other sectors, such as retail, will still have to wait a few more days.

In Belgium, industry was allowed to resume from 4 May and every citizen aged 12 or above needs to wear a mask on public transport.

In Portugal, hair salons, dry cleaners, repair shops and other businesses returned to work on the same day.

In a separate committee, also on Monday, MEPs said that rebuilding the hard-hit cultural and media sectors in post-COVID-19 Europe must be a “major objective” in the EU’s recovery plan.

With 40 percent of EU tourism linked to culture and cultural heritage sites, members of the culture and education committee discussed with EU Commissioners Mariya Gabriel and Thierry Breton specific plans to support the sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.

German EPP committee chair Sabine Verheyen said, “There's no doubt that the Commission is working hard to tackle the existential threat now facing the cultural and creative and the media sectors and that it shares our view that these sectors need to be vibrant, as they are essential pillars of European society and democracy.”

“Nevertheless, they are facing ruin and the EU can still needs to do much more.”

She added, “We need to adapt the current aid package – the often small businesses and individuals making up these sectors take one look at the mass of paperwork involved in the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative through the Structural Funds and run a mile.”

“We need to tailor support to those people and help them access that support. We also need – without delay - dedicated support for the media sector.”

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

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