Covid-19 threatens the integrity of the Schengen zone again. The partners of the European Union, which this Thursday hold a virtual summit to analyze the situation of the pandemic, are studying a new closure of internal borders to stop the expansion of new variants of the virus, especially that of the United Kingdom. This variant of the virus is not deadlier or causes more severe symptoms, but there are indications that it is more contagious. The European Commission considers a generalized shutdown like the one that already occurred last year among some countries in the early stages of the health crisis to be disproportionate. But several capitals believe that the restriction of freedom of cross-border movement may be essential in view of the escalation of infections caused by the new variants of SARS-CoV-2.
“Perhaps we should take new measures to restrict movements within the EU,” says a diplomatic source in Brussels on the eve of Thursday’s summit. And Angela Merkel’s government has already circulated an unofficial paper in which it underlines the “urgent need to act to prevent or at least slow down the spread of worrying variants of the virus both towards the EU and within the Union.”
The German text, to which EL PAÍS has had access, advocates quickly amending the recommendation of the EU Council on restrictions on freedom of movement to include the prevalence of new variants as one of the criteria to stop entry into a territory .
Berlin defends that all countries must agree to require a test (prior to travel) and quarantine (upon arrival) to people from areas with a massive presence of the variants. And optionally, according to the German proposal, each State could decide to prohibit entry to travelers from those areas within a radius of up to 15 kilometers.
The proposal could trigger a cascading border closure, as happened in the first wave of the pandemic. Berlin insists that health protection must be balanced with maintaining free movement within the Schengen zone. But the text itself recognizes that, where appropriate, it would only be necessary to guarantee “essential supply chains and the integrity of the internal market, in particular, of the cross-border transport of goods and supplies.”
The EU managed to weather the second wave of the virus without imposing controls within the Schengen zone, a measure that allowed maintaining the free movement of people and goods and maintaining the economic pulse of cross-border production chains. The only near-widespread closure within the EU occurred at the end of last year and affected the UK (which was not a Schengen member) and caused chaos on the English Channel passes.
The lack of control of the third wave, however, is already disturbing in many countries and this Thursday’s summit seems set to mark the turning point towards a tightening of movement controls. The European Commission arrives at the appointment with a document that urges Member States to accelerate vaccination campaigns to immunize 80% of people over 80 years of age and 80% of health personnel before April and 70% of the general population until summer.
But all 27 governments seem convinced that new variants of the virus spread much faster than punctures. “Only if the member states adopt joint and coordinated action can the virus be effectively contained,” says the text of the Merkel Executive. The document points to the concern generated by “the variants known so far, the B117 (British mutation) and the 501V2 (South African mutation)”. And he warns that “there is fear that new mutations will emerge.”
The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has warned this Wednesday of the danger that the internal market would run with a generalized closure of borders. “The message is clear: the outright closure of the borders does not make any sense,” Von der Leyen told the European Parliament. “And it is not as effective as much more precise measurements,” added the president, who advocates a strategy of tests and traces.
The establishment of test centers at border posts is pointed out as a possibility to try to maintain the fluidity of transit, at least within the EU. The measures could be much more draconian for travelers from abroad.
Germany proposes that states can prohibit entry from third countries when they deem it necessary for public health reasons. A ban that, according to Berlin, could even affect EU citizens who try to return to their countries from outside the EU.
Information about the coronavirus
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– Guide to action against the disease