Coronavirus Could Mean the End of Borderless EU Travel

Could Coronavirus Mean the End of Borderless Travel in the EU?

(Bloomberg) -- Passport-free movement is arguably the most successful feature of daily life for more than 400 million people in the European Union. But now the coronavirus poses an existential threat to a right that so many have taken for granted for decades.

The ability to travel across the bloc without border checks or passports was enshrined in the 1990 Schengen agreement and became a reality in 1995. Ireland and the U.K., which has since quit the EU, arranged an opt-out back in 1999. Four other EU member states (Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus) are outside Schengen while Switzerland joined the borderless area in 2009.

But Italy’s decision earlier this week essentially to quarantine its entire population of 60 million after it became the biggest focus of the Covid-19 pandemic outside China prompted an almost immediate response from its neighbors.

Coronavirus Could Mean the End of Borderless EU Travel


Austrian officials said Tuesday anyone coming from Italy could only enter the nation with a health certificate less than four days old, showing they’d tested negative for coronavirus. Any Italian travelers intending to transit to Germany would be allowed to enter Austria.

Trains are no longer allowed to travel to and from Italy, and flights from Italy can’t land in Austria, the government in Vienna said. Truck drivers entering Austria will also be tested for symptoms. The authorities acknowledged the measures were not airtight but said they were intended to slow down public movement. They also said they wanted to continue facilitating freight travel through the country into northern Europe.


Slovenian officials introduced tighter controls on its border with Italy, effective Wednesday evening. Passenger bus and train travel between the countries was suspended until further notice, with further restrictions on those entering Slovenia through its western border. All but six border crossings will remain open.

Foreigners can enter Slovenia only if they present a negative coronavirus test less than three days old, or agree to a health check, and do not show heightened body temperature or other symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, the officials said.


Hungary said late on Wednesday it was reinstating controls on its border with neighbors Austria and Slovenia on top of barring travelers from Italy as well as China, Iran and South Korea. The measures were announced on Wednesday after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cabinet declared a nationwide state of emergency, the first such instance in Hungary since the fall of the Iron Curtain.


Authorities in Switzerland, a Schengen signatory but not an EU member state, denied a press report they had sealed off the border with Italy, saying that they had no legal basis to do so. On Wednesday, however, they sealed off nine smaller border crossings with their southern neighbor in order to more closely monitor traffic at major entry points.

Sovereignty issues aside, Switzerland has to be pragmatic, as there are thousands of health care workers in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino who commute daily from Italy. They’re part of the 329,000 people who commute daily from France, Germany and Italy to work in the country.

‘Last Resort’ Measures

Schengen-area member states do have the right to reintroduce border controls in exceptional circumstances. The scope and duration “should be restricted to the bare minimum needed to respond to the threat in question” and should “only ever be used as a measure of last resort,” says the bloc’s Brussels-based executive arm, the European Commission.

For foreseeable events it can be done for 30 days, renewable for up to six months. If it’s an unforeseen event, “where immediate action needs to be taken in order to adequately respond to a threat” in the words of the commission, a member state can immediately close its borders for 10 days without first notifying Brussels. The maximum time period for unforeseen closures is two months.

Foreseeable closures have been invoked surprisingly frequently -- at least seven times since October -- so there’s every expectation a closure could be invoked with the coronavirus, given the scale of the outbreak across Europe.

‘Is this useful?’

The commission confirmed in a statement late on Wednesday that Austria had informed it of its border restrictions. The commission questioned the utility of such a move, saying “Member states would also need to assess whether internal border controls are a useful measure in the current context, also given the incubation period of the virus (up to 14 days), or whether other measures might be more appropriate.”

The commission said it will monitor the “proportionality and necessity” of the border controls and has begun regular meetings with Schengen member states on border security.

--With assistance from Boris Groendahl, Catherine Bosley, Samuel Dodge and Zoltan Simon.

To contact the reporters on this story: Hugo Miller in Geneva at;Jonathan Stearns in Brussels at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at, Peter Chapman, Christopher Elser

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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