Europes cherished Schengen network of open internal borders is on the brink of collapse as more and more countries shut their doors in a frantic effort to stave off the coronavirus pandemic, even as experts warn such tactics will delay its spread – but not halt it.
At his daily briefing on the coronavirus emergency on Friday, Luca Zaia, the governor of Italys Veneto region, one of Europes worst-hit, told reporters that Europes borderless zone was “disappearing as we speak”.
“Schengen no longer exists, it will be remembered only in the history books,” Zaia said, pointing to the long lines of traffic stuck at Italys northeastern border, where Austrian officials have reintroduced stringent controls.
With Italy reporting the most virus cases and deaths anywhere in the world except China, the pandemic is increasingly wearing on the EU's cherished core principle, which envisions a border-free Europe where citizens can freely live, work and travel.
Austria became the first country to impose drastic curbs on travel from Italy on Wednesday, urgently reinstalling border checkpoints in the exact spots where they had been dismantled back in 1997 when the country joined the Schengen Area.
All travellers seeking to cross the Brennero border from Italy are now required to present health certificates proving they have not contracted the COVID-19 virus – a measure that has slowed traffic on the busy Alpine crossing to a near standstill.
Since then, Slovenia and Switzerland, which also border Italy, have imposed similar curbs. But several other EU nations – including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus – have announced restrictions that go far beyond travellers from Italy.
"Most of the cases that have been propagating the coronavirus epidemic in Poland are imported cases," Polands Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters as he announced the closure of his countrys borders with all its neighbours starting at midnight on Saturday.
"We don't want the coronavirus to head our way in droves."
The successive border closures came as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that Europe had become the pandemic's current “epicenter” after reporting more cases and deaths than the rest of world combined, excluding China.
More than 22,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across Europe, and nearly 1,500 people with the virus have died on the continent – most of them in Italy.
While the virus is spreading across the continent, the rushed actions taken by individual states are highlighting the lack of a coordinated approach to fighting the coronavirus – not least among the European Unions 27 member states.
The European Commission, the EU's executive body, has recommended coordinated health screenings at the borders as a way to address infections, rather than border closures.
“Weve seen travel bans and controls being put in place in a number of member states,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Friday. “Certain controls may be justified, but general travel bans are not seen as being the most effective by the World Health Organization. Moreover, they have a strong social and economic impact. They disrupt peoples lives and business across the borders.”
To avoid a patchwork of national policies that are ineffective and cause economic harm, “any measure that is taken must be proportionate" and coordinated with Brussels, she said, suggesting that preliminary checks for signs of infection could be done at the Schengen Areas borders, both internal and external.
“Member states, especially neighbouring ones, need to work very closely together," Von der Leyen said. "In this way, and its the only way, we can make sure that our citizens receive the healthcare that they need immediately, wherever they are.”
But Von der Leyens commission, along with other EU institutions, has a very limited role to play in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. It polices the Schengen Area's rules, but individual countries are responsible for their own health and public safety policies.
In a sign of the EUs limited power, the Danish government also announced late Friday that it was closing all of its borders – land, sea and air – to travellers. Denmark consulted with neighbouring countries prior to the announcement but not with EU officials.
"We are in uncharted territory," Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a news conference as he announced the travel ban. "I know that the overall list of measures is very extreme and will be seen as very extreme, but I am convinced that it's worth it."
In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated divisions that first came to the fore in 2015, when eastern and central European states closed their borders to migrants and thwarted EU efforts to implement migrant quotas across the bloc.
Hungarys Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country has also banned travel from Italy, has made an explicit link between the two crises.
"We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus – there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement," Orban told Hungarian media on Friday.
"Our experience is that foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners," he added, in remarks that mirrored US President Donald Trumps description of the coronavirus as a “foreign disease”.
Trumps decision on Wednesday to slap a 30-day travel ban on people coming from the Schengen Area has stunned and angered EU officials, who were not consulted prior to the move.
“Instead of tending to the problems of his country, and to a virus that knows no borders, he thinks that he can fight it like people that have a different citizenship than American,” said German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.
Though it has stepped up monitoring travellers for signs of infection, Germany has so far refused to close its borders. Spain and Italy have also opted to keep borders open, even as they place their own populations unRead More – Source