Wednesday

21st Oct 2020

Coronavirus

Vast queues, as EU struggles with closed borders

  • Huge border queues have forced the EU to consider freight-only lanes (Photo: europa.eu)

Immense queues with waiting times of over 20 hours formed along some of the internal borders of the EU, as people struggled to get home and delivery lorries got stuck at closed borders.

Pressure was high on Wednesday (18 March) on the German-Polish border, where hundreds of citizens from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia wanted to cross to get home, although it decreased later in the day as Baltic countries sent ferries to Germany to pick up their citizens.

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A train and a plane also helped to repatriate the Baltic EU citizens, after Poland closed its borders last weekend to non-Polish citizens and suspended international air and railway travel in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Baltic countries criticised Poland for not opening up a "humanitarian corridor" for passenger cars, as Warsaw only organised convoys of vans and buses escorted by police.

Additional border crossings between Poland and Germany were opened up, with some reserved only for transport lorries to speed their transit.

Many other member states have rolled out draconian restrictions.

There were 40km of lines of cars stuck at the border between Austria and Hungary on Wednesday.

Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Estonia, Portugal, Spain, and non-EU members Switzerland and Norway have informed the EU commission about reintroducing border controls as the virus spread around the continent.

EU leaders on Tuesday backed the commission's guidelines to coordinate border measures.

Free movement of goods and people are key pillars of European integration and the economy within the passport-free Schengen zone, but the virus outbreak has tested EU solidarity and the free flow of goods and citizens.

Over videoconference, EU transport ministers held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the measures, financial help and tax relief to the transport sector, and minimising the disruption of the internal market.

"We agreed it is important to keep the freight moving, also across borders in order to make sure that the essential goods and medical supplies reach our citizens," Croatian transport minister Oleg Butković said, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

They discussed, based on the guidelines, free movement of transport workers, priority lanes for freight transport, flexibility for rules on driving and rest times, and notifying the commission of upcoming measures.

In Estonia for instance, mandatory checks for truck drivers have been stopped to reduce the queues at the Ikla border crossing with Latvia.

Meanwhile, EU home affairs ministers also held a meeting over videoconference on Wednesday.

"People must be able to return home and supplies must continue to arrive," home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson tweeted later.

However, it will take time before member states feel at ease with lifting border controls.

"Now that the guidelines have been discussed with the member states, and that they have largely approved and welcomed the guidelines, we expect member states in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity to implement them as quickly as possible," commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

"This is key for citizens stranded in member states and who want to go home, and key to ensure delivery of medical equipment and supplies to health care facilities and patients," he added.

The guidelines say member states must always admit their own citizens and residents and facilitate the transit of other EU citizens and residents who are on their way home.

However, the commission has little room to manoeuvre when it comes to pressuring EU countries to lift restrictions.

"The commission does not have the prerogative to stop these border controls from being introduced legally, but we do monitor the proportionality and the necessity of the introduction of these border controls," another spokesperson added.

"This is about member states understanding that it is in their own interest to cooperate, to solve the issue," Mamer said.

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