EU countries edge towards co-ordination on coronavirus travel rules

States agree ‘traffic light’ system but governments to set own policy for high-risk zones

The member states of the European Union have edged towards co-ordinating their approach to cross-border travel in the pandemic, in a bid to avoid a recurrence of border closures as infections rise steeply across the continent.

On Friday, EU ambassadors agreed that member states should base their decisions on a “traffic light” map drawn up by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that categorises regions in Europe into green, orange and red zones according to Covid-19 infection rates.

Under the agreement to be formalised next week, travellers from green areas would have no restrictions. However, due to rife infections, that currently applies only to parts of Germany, parts of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Cyprus, regions of Bulgaria and Greece and one zone in Italy.

For orange and red areas, national governments will continue to set their own policies, such as requiring negative Covid-19 tests or periods of quarantine, rules that can differ between regions within countries as well as from country to country.


Free movement

This stops far short of the initial plan by the European Commission, which had proposed that all member states introduce the same rules: replacing quarantine with testing that would be mandatory for travellers from red zones and advised to those from orange zones.

The EU’s executive is concerned that the tangle of different national requirements limit the functioning of free movement in the bloc, but has limited powers over the issue as health and borders matters are decided by national governments alone.

A cascade of border closures left citizens stranded and caused days-long tailbacks of trucks across the continent in March, something seen as a dire threat to the bloc’s treasured achievements of free travel and trade.

“That’s what this is all about, to make sure there will be no need again to set up border controls and the like,” a senior diplomat said of the efforts. “We do all this co-ordination to create an incentive not to close borders, but we cannot guarantee it,” the diplomat added. “Every state is sovereign to do what it likes.”

Underlining this, on the evening before ambassadors met to discuss the agreement, Finland announced it would ban non-essential travel to and from the rest of the Schengen free-travel area and reimpose border checks.

Finnish infection

“Differences in the epidemiological situation in Finland and other European countries, as well as the new acceleration in the spread of infections, require internal border controls to remain in place until the new health security measures are made available to the extent necessary,” a government statement said.

Hungary in September became the first EU country to reinstate border closures, after a general reopening over the summer across the bloc.

It comes as rising cases across the continent cause alarm in national capitals, with more than 100,000 new cases reported in a day on the continent for the first time this week.

The Spanish government imposed a state of emergency on Madrid on Friday to try to force down Covid-19 infection rates, overriding objections by local authorities who had mounted a successful court challenge against such restrictions.

With 850 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 people, the Madrid area has Europe’s highest infection rate, compared to Ireland’s rate of 124 per 100,000.

Under the new EU traffic light system, green zones are places with a rate of 25 infections per 100,000 people over a 14-day period, and where the percentage of positive tests is below 4 per cent.

Red means infection rates of 50 or more and positive tests of 4 per cent or higher, or infection rates of more than 150 even with a low positive test rate.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times