EU leaders prepare to close bloc’s borders

Brussels is planning a temporary ban on “non-essential travel” to 31 European countries as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday that the measure would cover EU countries and non-members of the bloc that are part of the 26-country Schengen passport-free travel zone.  EU citizens, their family members, bloc residents and workers in sectors deemed “essential” would be exempt from the measure, Ms von der Leyen said after briefing G7 leaders in a videoconference.

The proposed restrictions were driven by a need to “do more to reduce the huge pressure on our healthcare system”, the commission chief said in a video posted on social media. “We know that everything that reduces social interaction, also reduces the speed of the spread of the virus,” Ms von der Leyen said. “The less travel, the more we can contain the virus.” The move follows President Donald Trump’s decision last week to ban entry for Schengen area travellers, a measure EU leaders criticised as unilateral.

Brussels’ travel restrictions are also partly designed to restore some EU-wide co-ordination after a sharp rise in the number of Covid-19 patients triggered unilateral decisions by member states to all but seal their national borders. The proposed travel restrictions, which have yet to be approved by European national leaders, would complement an increasing number of national movement restrictions and quarantining measures across the continent, which the World Health Organisation has described as the epicentre of the outbreak. The travel restrictions would initially last 30 days and could be “prolonged as necessary”, Ms von der Leyen said.

The ban would also have to implemented by the four Schengen countries not in the EU — Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein — to ensure full impact, she added.

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Citizens of the UK — not a Schengen member and no longer in the EU since January — would not be covered by the restrictions, she said. Diplomats, cross-border commuters and workers in important sectors such as healthcare and haulage will be exempt. Ms von der Leyen discussed the measure during a telephone call on Monday with French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU leaders.

During the call, Mr Macron attacked national moves to close borders and called for a European response, according to diplomats briefed on the conversation. Some EU officials also acknowledge that Europe has an important role to play in stopping its citizens carrying the infection to other parts of the world. The commission separately announced guidelines aimed at lifting the disruptions entailed by border closures on the movement of medical equipment, food and other essential supplies and personnel throughout the EU.

The recommendations also call for enhanced health screening of travellers at borders for possible coronavirus infection. 

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