Coronavirus: European borders likely to remain open despite crisis in Italy, observers say

Keegan Elmer

European nations are wrestling with a dilemma amid the coronavirus outbreak over whether to maintain their policy of open borders or close their doors to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.

While European Union law allows nations to restrict the movement of people into and out of their territory in certain circumstances, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said that so far, “no member state has had any indication that they will have any internal border checks within the Schengen Area”.

The Schengen Area covers 26 European nations – including non-members of the EU – within which citizens, businesspeople and tourists can move freely without being subjected to border checks.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson says no member states have indicated they will introduce border checks within the Schengen Area. Photo: AFP

But some politicians – including Marine Le Pen, the head of the French right-wing National Rally party – have called for borders to be closed, especially with Italy, which as of Friday morning had reported more than 3,850 cases of the disease and 148 deaths.

On February 23, Austria suspended all train services to and from Italy for about four hours after a train bound for Germany via Austria was stopped on the Italian side after two passengers were suspected of being infected with the coronavirus.

Despite that, officials in Brussels have urged member states to keep their borders open.

Johansson said the EU had set up a “Covid-19 borders group”, with representatives from all EU member states and Schengen countries, to discuss border control issues and how best to work with national and international health organisations.

The desire to keep borders open contrasts with the approach taken by China, which closed down whole cities – mostly in Hubei province, where the coronavirus was first detected – and restricted people’s movement in others in a bid to contain the outbreak. The measures, which are gradually being lifted, have had a massive impact on the nation’s economy, with some economists suggesting China could fall one or two percentage points short of its 6 per cent growth target for 2020.

Despite the economic implications, the World Health Organisation described Beijing’s control policy as “perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

Italy has so far locked down 11 towns as it wrestles with the epidemic, but analysts said that any further closures could be “hugely disruptive” to the integrated euro-zone economy.

“One takeaway from the Chinese experience is that closing regions and borders does not pass the cost-benefit test, with a major cost to businesses but little apparent success in holding back the spread of the virus,” said Emily Mansfield, principal economist for Europe at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

On Thursday the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported 922 new cases on the continent, its highest daily total yet and including the first cases in Hungary, Liechtenstein and Poland.

Since last week, the number of new cases has been growing faster outside China than within. Infections have been confirmed in all but four of the EU’s 27 member states, with the exceptions being Bulgaria and Slovakia, and the island nations of Malta and Cyprus.

Despite the spread of the deadly disease, Saila Heinikoski, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said that the EU could insist neither on nations closing their borders nor keeping them open.

“The EU does not have the authority to restrict the movement of people, or to stop countries from restricting the movement of people.”

She said that while it was possible under EU law and in exceptional situations – such as when trying to contain a contagious disease – to restrict the rights of people to leave or enter a country, it was largely down to the member states themselves to decide how it should be done.

“At the moment, I don’t think countries will start conducting border checks on the basis of Covid-19,” Heinikoski said.

“But they may advise their citizens not to travel, to stay in home quarantine after trips to epidemic areas or discontinue transport connections between certain countries.”

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