Friday

23rd Apr 2021

EU Commission 'surprised' by Belgian travel ban extension

  • Belgium is the only country in the EU that introduced a total ban on non-essential travel after the Christmas holidays (Photo: Plasmastik)

The European Commission has expressed surprise at the Belgian government's decision to extend its ban on non-essential travel, stressing that "all options" are on the table to ensure free travel across the bloc.

The EU executive previously urged Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Denmark and Sweden to obey the bloc-wide recommendations on borders restrictions, arguing that their unilateral travel restrictions could undermine the functioning of the single market, and the principle of free movement.

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EU countries agreed earlier this year that non-essential travel to 'red' and 'dark-red' areas on their coronavirus map (500 cases per 100,000 people) should not be banned, but only discouraged.

In a letter, the commission called on the six EU countries to replace travel bans with more targeted measures, such as testing, isolation or quarantine strategies, pointing out that restrictions should be proportionate.

"The commission's position has not changed and is very clear. We do not believe that a ban on travel respects that principle and we have asked Belgium to replace it with more targeted measures," a commission spokesperson said on Monday (8 March).

Belgium is the only country in the EU that introduced a total ban on non-essential travel after the Christmas holidays - amid fears over the spread of virus mutations, such as those first detected in the UK, South Africa or Brazil.

The measure, which entered into force at the end of January, was initially effective until 1 March. But the government decided to extend the ban until 1 April shortly after.

Ahead of the Easter holidays, Belgian authorities decided, once again, on Friday to prolong the travel restriction until at least 18 April, aiming to avoid a potential spike in the number of cases.

"We were surprised to read in the press on Friday that there will be a new extension of the travel ban. That was not mentioned in the letter to the commission [sent the night before]," the commission spokesperson also said.

"Our aim is still to find solutions as soon as possible in order to ensure the functioning of the single market and the respect for Europeans' rights when it comes to freedom of movement," he added, warning that the EU executive will examine "all options on the table" to ensure free movement.

It is unclear if Brussels would launch an infringement procedure that could eventually result in sanctions for breach of EU laws.

Although the travel ban will be evaluated at the next consultation committee (26 March), Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said last week that the fact that Belgium travel ban is "more justified than ever" given the spread of variants across Europe.

The Belgian public health institute Sciensano last week registered an average of 2,344 daily cases - three percent fewer infections compared to the previous week.

As of Saturday (the last day for which figures are available), 613,929 people in Belgium had already received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Only 339,603 had been given the second dose.

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The European Commission is set to unveil a legislative proposal on a "digital green pass" to allow vaccinated people to travel more freely for the summer. But Belgium says the pass risks discrimination against people unable to get the jab.

EU adds new 'dark red' zone to travel-restrictions map

The European Commission has proposed additional measures to limit non-essential travel within and to the European Union - amid fears over more transmissible mutations triggering a new surge in cases across the bloc.

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Plans to reform the EU free-travel zone were already announced in September by the European Commission. On Friday, it re-stated those intentions following demands by the French president for a major overhaul.

Belgium goes into four-week Easter lockdown

Belgium's prime minister Alexander De Croo announced on Wednesday that the country will go into four weeks of Easter lockdown, starting from Saturday (27 March).

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