European Commission pushes member states for common travel rules

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders (L) and European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson (R) give a press conference on the Commission's proposal for more clarity and predictability of any measures restricting free movement in the EU in Brussels, Belgium, 04 September 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The European Commission on Friday (4 September) proposed a set of recommendations to prevent discriminatory measures applied by member states in a new attempt to harmonise fragmented COVID-19 travel restrictions across the bloc.

The EU executive’s proposal includes a common evaluation criteria for classifying colour-coded zones based on the number of newly registered COVID-19 cases, the share of positive tests and the number of tests conducted, as well as a single framework for high-risk travellers.

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson recalled that on the eve of the crisis, the Commission had developed a basis for recommendations to member states on internal and external border controls.

“Today’s actions build on what has been achieved so far, so that we can fully benefit from the Schengen area. That is why we want a clear ‘green, orange, red’ system and not a kaleidoscope of individual measures,” she stressed.

According to the recommendation, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is to publish a weekly updated version of a colour-coded map that would classify European regions into green, yellow and red zones.

According to these criteria, member states intending to apply restrictions would have to inform other countries and Brussels each Thursday, before the measures would come into force at the beginning of the following week.

The Commission proposes that if more than 250 tests per 100,000 inhabitants are performed weekly in the country of origin, free movement should not be restricted if the number of cases is less than 50 or the number of positive tests does not exceed 3% of those tested.

At the same time, the EU executive is proposing a “traffic light” system that takes into account not only cases of disease, but also the proportion of positive test results.

A country is red if the number of cases exceeds 50% and the number of positive tests exceeds 3%, or if the number of new cases exceeds 150 in two weeks.

The Commission’s plan foresees no mandatory restrictions applied to green or orange zones, Johansson told reporters.

Travellers coming to and from red zones may be subject to mandatory restrictions, but these should apply uniformly across the EU, including to travellers moving domestically between areas that are coloured differently.

The Commission considers that travellers with a vital function or with special needs – such as critical professions, cross-border and posted workers, students or journalists carrying out their duties – should not be quarantined.

“Both for citizens, for residents, and for businesses, of course, in these zones, it’s important that they have a degree of certainty,” said Johansson. “They need to be informed ahead of possible restrictions, and should not be taken by surprise while already travelling somewhere.”

The Commission’s proposal will be discussed by EU ministers in the coming weeks.

National criteria for introducing restrictions on the movement of people have differed from country-to-country since the start of the pandemic in March.

Johansson added that all restrictions “need to be proportionate and non-discriminatory” in what appeared to be a reference to events earlier this week when Hungary shut its borders to EU travellers, but made exceptions for those coming from the Visegrád Four countries after a personal appeal by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to his Hungarian counterpart Victor Orbán.

Hungary did not inform the Commission of the new measures during their videolink with Brussels last Friday (28 August) before the new border crossing rules came into effect on 1 September, prompting officials to send a stern letter to Budapest earlier this week.

Brussels writes to Budapest over discriminatory border measures

The European Commission warned Hungary not to discriminate against EU citizens and residents after new border measures were introduced that favour tourists from the four Visegrád countries.

In his weekly interview early on Friday (4 September) Orbán said that “Brussels bureaucrats have to understand that there is a very close epidemiological cooperation between these [Visegrád] four countries,” and the differentiation was a “regulated, normal, well-thought-out system.”

Commenting on Hungary’s move, Johansson said that the country “has been extremely quick to decide on new measures at the borders and also extremely quick to correct them when they see that they are causing a lot of problems.”

“I expect Hungary to be extremely quick to adapt to and to follow the recommendations once adopted by the Council,” she added.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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