EU leaders agree to keep Europe’s borders open

However, with fresh fears of new strains of the coronavirus, they have warned again non-essential travel.
Caption: European Council President Charles Michel hosts Council Summit. 21 January | Source: European Council Audiovisual Services

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

22 Jan 2021

Leaders met online on Thursday for an emergency summit to discuss the latest developments of the crippling pandemic. Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo was among those calling for a travel ban. He said this would ensure that people could not leave Belgium and return with the virus “in their suitcase”.

But, despite pre-summit speculation of a tightening of borders, the 27 leaders - forced to meet online because of the crisis - agreed to maintain open borders while discouraging all non-essential travel.

EU countries currently rely on a colour-coded map to determine the worst hit countries and this will be maintained. But a new “dark red” category of European countries will shortly be introduced for those countries deemed to have the most critical situations, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after the video summit.

No decision was taken on a proposal, tabled by Greece, for an EU wide vaccine certificate which is designed to enable at least some travel to resume in the near future. Leaders are pointedly calling for a rapid speeding up of the vaccination programme, something the EU - and Member States - has been heavily criticised of late.

“Borders need to stay open to ensure the functioning of the Single Market, including the flow of essential goods and services. No indiscriminate travel bans should be imposed” European Council President Charles Michel

Following the one-day meeting, European Council President Charles Michel said, “Borders need to stay open to ensure the functioning of the Single Market, including the flow of essential goods and services. No indiscriminate travel bans should be imposed.” He then cautioned, “However, measures restricting non-essential travel in the EU may be needed to contain the spread of the virus.”

Ursula von der Leyen, who also took part in the discussion, said, “All non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged, both within the country and of course across borders.” Adding, “Blanket closures of borders would damage the economy but not do much to control the virus.” Meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that closing borders was “the last resort.”

Further comment comes from EPP leader Manfred Weber who also argued against closing borders. He said the extraordinary summit on the management of the pandemic was “crucial” to agree a common strategy against the new virus mutations.

“Blanket closures of borders would damage the economy but not do much to control the virus” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

The German deputy added, “The data is very worrying. By mid-February, the British variant could be dominant in several countries in Europe. We have seen in the UK how quickly the situation can become critical. Without a decisive common strategy focused on travel guidelines, standardised testing and an intensified vaccination effort, we are facing a very serious third wave.”

The spread of the so-called British variant has already pushed several EU Member States to strengthen their protection measures.

Weber said, “The border closures of last year failed to effectively protect us and caused major damage to the economy. We should limit non-essential travel as much as possible, but critical personnel for the healthcare sector or truck drivers transporting goods over borders should be safeguarded at all costs.”

Greens co-leader, Philippe Lamberts MEP, called for “comparable measures across borders and a pan-European approach to testing.” He added, “The virus doesn't recognise national borders.”

“Without a decisive common strategy focused on travel guidelines, standardised testing and an intensified vaccination effort, we are facing a very serious third wave” EPP Group leader Manfred Weber

Thilo Brodtmann, Executive Director of the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, said, “The call for border closures has been increasingly rising again in some EU Member States. But this must be buried as soon as possible.”

He said, “In the first wave of the pandemic, we had to learn painfully that closed borders impair central value chains and can lead to bottlenecks in important goods and services. Industry in Europe, and especially in the European Single Market, is now so closely intertwined that border closures have unforeseeable consequences.”

He added, “Particularly in sectors such as the pharmaceutical or food industries, machinery in one country cannot be allowed to stand still because, for example, service workers from another country are prevented from travelling across the border to carry out necessary repairs.”

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