Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Coronavirus

EU closes external borders in anti-virus move

  • Press conference with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU leaders have agreed to restrict most travel into Europe for at least 30 days in an unprecedented move.

The aim is to slow down the spread of coronavirus in Europe and globally and to limit the deadly outbreak's impact on the bloc's internal market of open borders.

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The restrictions, agreed on Tuesday (17 March), will apply to almost all non-EU citizens with exceptions such as people transporting goods, diplomats, and military personnel, health care professionals, and researchers. Long-term residents or visa-holders and relatives of EU citizens can also travel.

Ireland will not join the travel restrictions, because the UK has not either, and they share a common and politically sensitive border.

Non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland will be part of the measures, but their citizens and UK citizens can continue to travel into the EU.

Member states said they will seal off their external borders "immediately", European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after the three-hour teleconference with leaders.

The EU commission, which proposed the move over the weekend, is hoping that the measure will convince EU governments to roll back the internal border closures that have come into place over the last week in an effort to stop the virus.

Several member states have introduces curfews, shut down stores and restaurants, canceled all events to limit the spread of the virus and stop it from overwhelming healthcare systems.

However, introducing internal border checks gives concerns about the free movement of goods and people - two pillars of European cooperation and the continent's economic success.

At least 15 out of the 26 members of the passport-free Schengen zone have closed national borders, and it is unclear if shutting down the external borders will ease any of those internal restrictions.

In order to mitigate the economic fallout and keep the supply chains open, the EU leaders also endorsed a proposal by the commission to open up "green lanes" - fast-track lanes at borders for the transportation of goods.

"It is absolutely crucial that we unblock the situation, we know that too many people are stranded within the EU and have a problem to go back home, they have to be supported," von der Leyen said.

"We have a lot of traffic jams of lorries transporting goods, the flow of goods has to be swift," she added.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have criticised Poland for blocking their citizens in transit from returning home, and Hungary has temporarily lifted its closed borders to Romanian and Bulgarian travellers who got stuck trying to return to their native countries.

Von der Leyen said she was optimistic there will be "positive changes" in the next days on the internal movement front.

But she also acknowledged that "it will take quite a while until we reach the lifting of the internal borders."

Meanwhile, cross-borders workers will continue to be allowed to move across frontiers, the leaders agreed.

Von der Leyen said Luxembourgish prime minister Xavier Bettel had warned that the majority of his country's health workers lived in France and Germany.

Coronabonds?

EU leaders also endorsed using the current EU fiscal and state aid rules to maximise help governments can give to businesses and workers.

And they backed plans drawn up by eurozone finance ministers to tackle the economic fallout.

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte raised the possibility of issuing"coronavirus bonds" to end market speculation and contain the financial damage.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had opposed the idea of eurobonds before, told reporters later she wold discuss the idea with her finance minister, but there were no conclusions on the issue.

Virus-tsunami

Conte warned that the coronavirus was causing a "socio-economic tsunami" across Europe and that no EU country would be left untouched.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar warned after the meeting in a televised address that the coronavirus emergency could go on for months into the summer.

He added it will take years to pay the "bill" left by the outbreak's economic impact.

EU countries have been scrambling to give a coordinated health, economic, and social response in the fast-moving pandemic.

EU leaders will hold another online meeting next week, when their regular March summit was meant to have taken place in Brussels.

"This is an external shock, it hits the whole world, and we never had that before," von der Leyen said.

"The enemy is a virus, and we have to do our utmost to protect our people and economies," she said, adding: "We will not hesitate to take additional measures as the situation evolves."

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