What are the effects of the national border closures on containing the COVID-19 infection?
08 April 2020
Governments across Europe are implementing border closures, travel restrictions, and heightened screening at their borders. How useful are these measures in countering the spread of the Coronavirus?
Rainer Münz, Migration and Demography expert, formerly working at the In-House Think Tank of the European Commission (2015-2020):
“All these measures are definitely useful in reducing the risk of COVID-19 contagion, as is the case with any other epidemics. It is clear that infected business and leisure travellers have brought the virus from China to Europe and North America. The same is true inside Europe. Many people got infected after coming back from trips to Italy, western Austria, and a few other ‘hotspots’. Such closures even make sense within countries.”
Jean-Louis De Brouwer, Director of Justice and Home Affairs, Social Policies and Sustainable Development, Egmont (Royal Institute for International Affairs):
“Some have expressed the view that a mere closure which is not complemented by a strong programme of testing and tracking would be useless. Others have stressed that it was all the more senseless, as these decisions were often taken at a time when the virus was already inside the country. Not being an epidemiologist, I will refrain from engaging in this debate. But I would support the views expressed by Migration Policy Institute experts in a recent policy brief: while stressing that COVID-19 was not a migration problem, they acknowledged that “closing borders to non-essential travel might be a logical extension of asking people to stay home.”
Carlos Coelho, Founder of the Schengen Observatory, former MEP:
“A general or targeted ban on travelling would help contain the spread of the virus. In contrast, the reintroduction of internal border controls is not necessarily useful in containing the spread of COVID-19. Why? Their implementation – particularly along land borders – is hardly possible: 1. The member states do not have enough human resources to conduct effective controls. 2. Controlling the green parts of the borders (outside the official border crossing points) is impossible. 3. A traveller might not show the symptoms and already carry the virus. Thus, the imposition of quarantines to travellers would be an effective measure. In addition, there are side effects to these controls, clearly affecting the free movement of goods overland. This is particularly worrisome for medical equipment and supplies, pharmaceutical products but also perishable goods such as vegetables and fruit.”
It seems that only some member governments of the Schengen Area notified the European Commission of the impending reintroductions of border checks. Is this a problem?
Münz: “Governments are working in an emergency mode. It might be that not all procedures foreseen by the Schengen regulations have been followed, but the Commission does not seem to have major objections (for now) as long as the flow of goods is ensured. We also should not forget that earlier border controls imposed by countries such as Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and France as a reaction to the inflow of refugees and irregular migrants in 2016 had still been in place when current measures were taken.”
De Brouwer: “Yes, absolutely. Controlling access to its territory might be deemed as a fundamental prerogative of a Westphalian sovereign state. However, adherence to the Schengen Area of free circulation means accepting new rules and adopting new behaviours building upon transparency and mutual trust and translating these into permanent coordination. That is why the Commission rightly reacted by presenting its generally welcome ‘Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services’ on 16 March 2020. As the reintroduction of border controls and travel restrictions are indeed compatible with the Schengen ‘acquis’ under certain conditions, it was essential to implement them in a coordinated way while preserving the internal market.”
Coelho: “Not necessarily. Border check notifications are lodged for three main reasons: 1. Guaranteeing publicity and transparency. 2. Allowing ex-post verification on proportionality and the necessity of national border controls by the European Commission (complemented by a report of the member states once the controls end). 3. Ensuring and encouraging coordination between the member state imposing the controls and those member states that are affected. Whereas the present controls are widely publicised, and the current situation falls within the circumstances foreseen by the Schengen Borders Code, it is not so clear that coordination has occurred. Not notifying the Commission might thus indicate a bigger problem: a lack of coordination between member states. Polish controls and their effect on the citizens of the Baltic countries serve as an important example. On the other hand, it will be essential to see whether or not the national controls produced the results desired and if they were effectively implemented. Notifications would provide relevant information to the Commission for this assessment.”
On 16 March, all Schengen Area member states approved the European Commission’s proposal to impose a 30-day restriction on non-essential travel to the EU, thus creating a Schengen Area ‘security perimeter’. What are the chances that this measure will lead to the easing of border checks inside the Schengen Area?
Münz: “The issue is not so much ‘checks’, but the denial of access. This is an additional measure attempting to reduce contagion, and it will not affect travel restrictions. Both measures will – sooner or later – be lifted hand-in-hand.”
De Brouwer: “This is the bet of the Commission, which, in its communication of 16 March states that ‘such a measure would also enable the lifting of internal control measures.’ However, the joint statement adopted by the members of the European Council on 26 March reflects a somewhat different understanding: heads of state and governments commit to ensuring smooth border management where temporary internal controls have been introduced, without actually questioning them. On a related subject, one should also bear in mind the negative consequences such restrictions could have on the respect of international protection obligations. Although the Commission explicitly stresses that such a measure should not apply to persons in need of international protection, or for other humanitarian reasons, the situations at the borders between Greece and Turkey or between Croatia and Bosnia deserve our utmost attention. By the way, this issue is not unique to Europe; it also arises between the US and Mexico.”
Coelho: “None. Recent experience shows – notably with the so-called refugee crisis – that reinforcement of the protection of our external borders has not resulted in the lifting of the internal controls. Nor has it led to a change in the political debate. Moreover, even though this pandemic is provoking symmetrical effects across the union, the spread of the virus varies across the EU.”
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