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EU tells six countries to lift Covid border restrictions

Daniel Boffey in Brussels
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

Brussels has put six EU member states on notice that their tight Covid border restrictions, including exit and entry bans, should be lifted over fears of a wider breakdown in the bloc’s free movement of people and goods.

Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden have been given 10 days to respond to the European commission’s concerns that they have breached commonly agreed coronavirus guidelines.

Restrictions imposed by Germany at its border with the Austrian Tirol region have been a particular cause of tension in recent weeks, with the German ambassador in Vienna summoned to justify the “unnecessary measures that do more harm than good”.

There are concerns in Germany, however, that the country could be heading into a third wave of infection, with the number of cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days at 60.5 – up from 55-57 the previous week.

The commission published its guidelines in January recommending EU member states keep open their borders and only “strongly discourage” non-essential travel, with the option of imposing testing and quarantine requirements on travellers from areas with high levels of infection.

The commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, a former German minister, has said she is determined to avoid a repeat of the early months of the pandemic when a series of unilateral decisions caused chaos at the borders and threatened supply chains.

But in recent weeks, stricter controls have been applied by the six countries targeted by the EU’s executive branch, in what a commission spokesman said presented a clear risk to the functioning of the single market in goods and people.

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“We underline the need for free movement restrictions to be non-discriminatory and proportionate, and we urge member states to align their provisions, more closely with the commission recommendations that we have jointly agreed, and review [their] rules on free movement,” a commission spokesman said.

The contentious new border controls include a broad ban on non-essential travel imposed by the governments of Belgium and Sweden and the selective entry restrictions enforced by the German government on traffic from Austria’s Tirol region, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Currently only German citizens, foreign residents and essential workers are allowed to cross the border.

On Tuesday, Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, tweeted a call for “common standards for travel and the transport of goods within the EU to ensure the functioning of the single market”.

“It is a necessity to go back to a coordinated approach to all the measures taken in relations with the free movement of people and goods in the European Union,” the EU commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, a former Belgian minister, said.

Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, insisted his government needed to act due to its exposure as “a transit country in the middle of the European Union”.

He said: “I reject the accusation that we have not complied with EU law … These measures obviously put a massive strain on border regions, commuters and the transport of goods and the single market, but the protection of our citizens is paramount.”

The restrictions on the German-Austrian border were enforced earlier this month over concern at the high incidence in the Czech Republic and Tirol of the newer more infectious coronavirus variant first identified in the UK.

A commission spokesman said: “We trust that we will find solutions with member states concerns without having to revert to legal steps, which can be lengthy. So, member states have now 10 days to reply and we will then take it from there.”