EU must go “back to the future” of open borders after COVID-19 “as soon as possible”, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told EU lawmakers on Thursday (7 May) as the European Commission wants member states to start gradually lifting national border controls.
“Member states introduced different measures in an uncoordinated manner. Unwinding these different national restrictions will take some time, but we can do it,” Johansson said in a videoconference with the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties.
“We now need to get back to the future, back to normality. And we need to do so as soon as the health situation allows it,” Johansson said, referring to border closures enforced by EU countries in the last two months because of the pandemic.
However, Johansson clarified in front of EU lawmakers, that the EU Commission would reject selective border openings.
“Member states cannot open the borders to citizens of one EU country, but not to another,” she said, adding that nationality should not decide on the possibility of entering and leaving the EU.
According to an internal document seen by EURACTIV, the European Commission is expected to adopt a broad package on tourism, transport and borders in the context of the coronavirus crisis next week and issue guidelines amounting to a balancing act between avoiding a fresh wave of infections and allowing economies to revive.
The pandemic-caused free movement breakdown was similar to what happened during the 2015-15 migration crisis, when member states closed national borders in an effort to stop the wave of migrants heading for Europe.
Member states’ varying responses to the pandemic, which have included summary border closures and emergency health checks of arriving travellers, has put EU unity to another test.
With tourism one of the hardest-hit sectors by the pandemic, a number of countries dependent on revenue from holiday-makers had advocated bilateral openings between some countries that were well rated from an epidemiological point of view.
The Baltic states announced this week they would restore inter-Baltic freedom of movement from 18 May, Austria is striving to open borders with Germany and the Czech Republic, which is, in turn, discussing a “tourist corridor” between Prague and Zagreb for the summer.
According to Johansson, undoing the uncoordinated measures will be a difficult task that will take time.
“But whatever we do, we will remove the restrictions in line with our values and that means no discrimination,” the Swedish Commissioner said.
Johansson also said she supports the accession of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, the only three members outside Schengen, to the passport-free area.
“We need to update and further strengthen the Schengen area, (…) I hope that Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia join the Schengen area,” the Commissioner told MEPs.
Bulgaria and Romania are still under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), established as a condition for their EU accession in 2007, while Croatia joined the EU in 2013 without such a mechanism.
In recent years, the Schengen area, hailed as one of the EU’s major achievements, has faced new obstacles, from the migration crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Individual member countries, in particular the Netherlands, have repeatedly blocked the Schengen bids of Bulgaria and Romania, linking the CVM, in other words, political criteria, with accession.
Johansson recalled that when the Schengen area of five countries was created in 1985, the Berlin Wall was still a symbol of Europe divided by the Cold War and millions of Europeans were unable to travel freely.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]