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Border wars: France & Spain eyeing tit-for-tat Covid-19 travel quarantines, as EU leaves border control up to its members

Border wars: France & Spain eyeing tit-for-tat Covid-19 travel quarantines, as EU leaves border control up to its members

France has threatened to quarantine incoming Spanish nationals, after the government in Madrid announced it would quarantine all incoming travelers. Across Europe, the reopening of borders is anything but smooth.

The Spanish government announced on Wednesday that all travelers arriving from overseas will be subject to a 15-day quarantine, effective from Friday. Arrivals from France will be quarantined for 10 days, Reuters reported. These travelers will be locked down in their hotels or accommodation, and allowed out only to shop for groceries or visit healthcare facilities.

The Elysee Palace hit back on Thursday, warning that France would retaliate with a similar measure, should the Spanish plan go ahead. The retaliation would apply to all countries restricting access for French citizens, an official at the palace told Reuters.

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These tit-for-tat restrictions appear to clash with the EU Commission’s guidelines on re-opening, published on Wednesday. According to the guidelines’ “principle of non-discrimination,” member states should “allow travel from all areas, regions or countries in the EU with similar epidemiological conditions.” 

The overall aim of the EU’s guidelines is to reopen much of the formerly borderless Schengen area in time for the vacation season, in a bid to save the union’s vital tourism industry. Europe accounts for half of the global tourist market, so rescuing this industry is of vital importance for Brussels.

However, the EU has no power to actually dictate border policy, and can only urge its members to go along with its proposals. Ultimately, each state is responsible for its own borders. Though Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told MEPs last week that the Commission rejects selective border openings, that hasn’t stopped member states from making up their own rules.

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The UK has done so, even in the face of threats from Brussels. Though it has left the European Union, Britain is still subject to the bloc’s freedom of movement rules. As such, the union threatened to sue the British government this week, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson exempted French travelers from the country’s 14-day quarantine rule. According to the EU, Britain must quarantine arrivals from every EU state, or none at all.

Germany will have opened four of its borders – with France, Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg – by June 15. The country’s Dutch and Belgian borders are already open, with local authorities performing spot checks on travelers. However, travel between Poland and the Czech Republic and Germany will remain off the cards, and entry to non-bordering countries will remain banned until at least June 15.

In Austria, where the coronavirus has been all but contained, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday that its border with Germany will be fully reopened within a month. A day earlier, he said that controls along the country’s Swiss border will be eased within days. However, Kurz offered no timeline for opening Austria’s Italian border, on the other side of which sits the virus hotspot of Veneto.

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The hodgepodge relaxation of border controls mirrors the chaotic manner in which Europe shut itself down two months ago.

In late February, as EU health ministers collectively declared that “closing borders would be a disproportionate and ineffective measure at this time,” Austria was halting rail travel from Italy. Two weeks later, Hungary unilaterally shut its borders to all foreign citizens. By mid-March, nearly half of the bloc’s 27 members had restored their old border restrictions.

Even as talk has shifted to opening up these frontiers again, the coronavirus remains a threat in Europe. Five of the 10 worst-hit countries in the world are European – including the UK – and in these five countries combined, more than a million people have caught the deadly virus, with 128,000 passing away.

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Border wars: France & Spain eyeing tit-for-tat Covid-19 travel quarantines, as EU leaves border control up to its members

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