Virus mutations reignite EU border tension.
Germany’s restrictions on entry from the Czech Republic and Austria threaten to trigger a domino effect of closures between Schengen countries.
The spread of a new mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus threatens to send the European Union back to square one of the border crisis triggered by the pandemic in spring 2020. Now, as then, Germany is leading the way in imposing restrictions on people and vehicles’ movement, which has already led to the first large queues of lorries in the Czech Republic. The domino effect of the border closures is already threatening to spread to other countries bordering Germany, such as Austria and Denmark. For now, the European Commission is limiting its response to a reminder of the obligation to allow goods transport to pass through so as not to break supply chains and to cross-border workers in essential services. But tensions between Berlin and border capitals are on the rise, and the Schengen zone’s integrity is once again at risk.
Since the beginning of the year, when the spread of the new mutations began to become widespread, eight of the 26 countries that make up the Schengen zone have notified the European Commission of the reintroduction of controls at some part of their internal borders: Finland, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Norway, Portugal and Germany. The Commission is monitoring to ensure that the restrictions are proportionate to the risk of the virus’s spread and that they do not lead to a breach of the internal market or excessively limit freedom of movement. But Brussels does not hide its concerns about some of the measures, particularly those of Belgium, which has reintroduced controls at all its borders, and Germany, which has prevented free movement across its land borders since Sunday from its borders the Czech Republic and Austria.
Brussels, however, limits its action for the moment to remind states of the recommendation on restrictions adopted by the EU Council on 1 February, which stipulates that “in principle, workers in the transport sector and transport service providers should not be required to undergo a test”. The agreed guidelines state that, where transport workers’ testing is essential, “rapid antigen tests should be used”. The recommendation introduced a new category on the epidemiological map to indicate “dark red” areas where the virus’s presence, including new variants, is more than 500 cases per 100,000 population in 14 days. In such cases, states will be able to isolate these areas and restrict the entry and exit of travellers as much as possible, but without completely cutting off transport flows.
But the controls imposed by Germany have caused the first traffic jams on entry routes from the Czech Republic. On Monday, the first working day of restrictions, long lines of lorries formed at border points with the German states of Saxony and Bavaria. Several hauliers interviewed by public television said they had waited between two and a half and three hours to cross.
The closure came into effect at midnight on Saturday night. Since then, only German citizens or citizens with permanent residence in the Czech Republic, hauliers and cross-border workers in important sectors, such as healthcare, have been allowed to cross the border into the Czech Republic. They must present a negative PCR test or undergo an antigen test at the border.
According to figures from the Federal Employment Agency, 33,800 Czechs cross every day to work in Germany. And only a small part of them, 1,500, do so in the health sector. This means that the non-essential German companies that employ them will not be able to count on them for the duration of the restrictions – for the moment, ten days.
Germany defends the closure despite warnings from Brussels. Since January, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been warning that she would not allow unnecessary travel to Germany from other countries with lax measures. Germany has a 14-day cumulative incidence of 137 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and has been falling for four weeks in a row. The Czech Republic, seven times more (964). Since the beginning of November, Germans have endured a near-total shutdown of public life. Since then, the hotel and catering trade, leisure and culture have not been open. In mid-December, non-essential trade and education were also closed. Primary schools and kindergartens are beginning to open in some federal states.
Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder travelled to the border town of Schirnding, where he explained that the Bavarian regions with the highest incidence are those bordering the Czech Republic. While Bavaria has, on average, 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days, these areas have more than 300. Right across the border, the Czech region of Cheb is at 848. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said the measure, which he declined to refer to as a “border closure” but rather “temporary controls”, was “extraordinary”.
The decision to close the border with Austria is linked to an outbreak of the coronavirus’s South African variant in the Tyrol region. As of Sunday, 251 suspected cases had been reported. In March last year, this region, and more specifically the famous ski resort of Ischgl, became the epicentre of the spread of the virus across Europe. The resorts have remained open despite the cases being reported in recent weeks. The Austrian government has also imposed exit restrictions from the Tyrol to the rest of its territory to prevent the spread of the variant. According to the Austrian daily Kurier, more than 1,000 travellers were checked at the Bavarian-Tyrolean border in the first 10 hours after the restrictions came into force in Germany. Police prevented a quarter of them from crossing. Several Austrian politicians, including the interior minister, have called the restrictions “unacceptable”. The governor of Tyrol said closing the border would do nothing to contain the virus and would lead to chaos.
The car industry, one of the industries potentially most affected if the supply chain is disrupted, has already raised the alarm. Sigrid de Vries, secretary-general of Clepa (the European employers’ organisation for automotive components), warns that border closures and inspections at border crossings “could lead to critical delays in the supply chain” that could even “slow down production and put jobs at risk”. The industry fears a massive bottleneck like the one in Dover (UK) at the end of December when France imposed tests on incoming lorry drivers.
The recommendation agreed by the EU-27 states that if the restrictive measures have an impact on supply chains, “systematic testing requirements should be lifted immediately to preserve the functioning of green lanes”, i.e. the preferential lanes set up at the beginning of the pandemic to keep transport moving from one country to another.
Brussels also recalled that the guidelines foresee special treatment for cross-border workers, i.e. those who reside in one country but cross into another daily for work purposes. The recommendation states that persons who cross the border daily or very frequent basis “for work, business, education, family, medical or other care” should be exempted from the testing and quarantine requirements. If mandatory testing is introduced, it should be done at a frequency that is not disproportionate. And if both sides of the border are in the same epidemiological situation, no testing should be imposed.