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Brussels battles capitals over border restrictions



The European Commission again hit out at coronavirus travel restrictions imposed by EU countries, threatening legal action ahead of a meeting of EU leaders this week.

The Commission sent letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden to ask them to lift restrictions on their borders in line with a recommendation on travel that EU countries agreed to earlier this month. The six countries have 10 days to respond.

“We trust we will find solutions with member states concerned without having to revert to legal steps, which can be lengthy,” a Commission spokesperson said Tuesday.

At a press conference following a video meeting of European affairs ministers Tuesday evening, Portugal’s European Affairs Minister Ana Paula Zacarias said: “We really hope that during the European Council, also our leaders can discuss this matter and that indeed we can somehow abide by what is the recommendation.”

Zacarias, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, acknowledged the agreement against internal travel restrictions was not mandatory, but added: “It will be very important if we could stick as much as possible to the recommendation that we adopted all together.”

EU leaders are expected to discuss the issue during their videoconference on Thursday, after new rules at the borders of several countries disrupted traffic flows.

Germany requires truckers entering the country from the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region, labeled high risk due to the presence of mutations, to pre-register and carry proof of a recent negative coronavirus test. Belgium has also prohibited non-essential travel across borders.

“For the green lanes system to function on the ground, transport workers should not be required to quarantine, and in addition, tests should be the absolute exception,” Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič told the press conference.

He said EU countries should avoid “blanket travel bans” for citizens — such as the one currently enforced by Belgium — and said that countries should instead opt for targeted measures: “Mandatory quarantine is an effective tool to discourage touristic travel, if properly enforced.”

But Germany’s European Affairs Minister Michael Roth on Tuesday defended his country’s decision, saying that while the rules put a “massive strain” on border regions, commuters and freight transport and the single market, people’s health comes first.

“We need large testing capacities; not to bully anyone, or to make mobility difficult for anyone, but to protect our citizens,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a closed-door meeting of her Christian Democratic Union political group on Tuesday that “we now have a third wave” and warned that case numbers could rise again quickly if Germany does not remain vigilant, according to a report by German daily Bild.

Meanwhile, as other countries consider how to open up travel — Greece, in particular, is pushing hard for the use of vaccine passports to allow people to travel — Šefčovič reiterated that the Commission did not, for now, see this as a viable option.

According to the EU’s infectious disease agency, “there is currently no evidence that a vaccinated person cannot still be infected and still transmit the disease,” he told Tuesday’s press conference. “Of course, this position could evolve as more evidence becomes available.”

“In any case, one point must be clear: Being vaccinated must not become a precondition for EU citizens to exercise their fundamental rights to free movement. Because free movement must remain possible upon the condition that testing or quarantine requirements are met,” he said.



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