EU Defends Open Border Decision as Coronavirus Spreads

James Carstensen | February 26, 2020 | 3:50pm EST
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A guarded checkpoint outside Zorlesco, a small quarantined town in northern Italy. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)
A guarded checkpoint outside Zorlesco, a small quarantined town in northern Italy. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – European ministers are defending a controversial decision to keep internal borders open despite fears of the China-originated coronavirus, which has hit Italy particularly hard, spreading to more countries.

“This is a situation of concern but we must not give in to panic,” E.U. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Rome on Wednesday. “We must also be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation.”

“Viruses know no borders, it is only through global cooperation and coordination that we will be able to contain the spread of COVID-19,” she added on Twitter.

A day earlier, Kyriakides met with World Health Organization (WHO) and European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) officials, and with health ministers from France, Germany, and Italy who committed to keeping borders open.

On Monday, the E.U.’s executive Commission announced that it would not introduce border controls within the Schengen open-borders area in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy and fears of a pandemic.

Over the space of a week, the number of confirmed cases in Italy has climbed from three to 322, according to WHO figures updated on Wednesday. Eleven COVID-19 patients have died, making Italy the fourth worst-affected country behind China, Iran, and South Korea.

Apart from Italy, there are as of Wednesday 39 confirmed cases in the E.U., with 18 in Germany, 12 in France, two each in Austria, Croatia and Spain, and one each in Belgium, Finland, and Sweden. In non-E.U. countries in Europe, there are 13 cases in Britain, two in Russia and one in Switzerland. One death has been recorded in France.

Despite the outbreak in Italy, the situation elsewhere in the E.U. has remained relatively consistent.

“We’re talking about a virus that doesn’t respect borders,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza following Tuesday’s meeting, adding that closing borders would be “a disproportionate and ineffective measure at this time.”

French junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told French media Monday that closing borders would “make no sense,” since “the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders.”

Some far-right politicians, including Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, are unhappy with the decision.

“Of course we need controls,” National Rally leader Le Pen said Tuesday, criticizing her country’s health minister for supporting open borders.

“Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible,” Salvini, a member of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party, told reporters in Genoa on Monday. “The government has underestimated the coronavirus.”

As of Wednesday there are just two confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Africa, one in Egypt and one in Algeria.

Under the Schengen agreement – which allows travel free of border controls between 26 countries – member-states have the right to reintroduce border controls in case of a “serious threat to public policy or internal security.”

An E.U. official said via email that while COVID-19 would fall under these public health and policy grounds, the introduction of border controls should only be used as a “last resort.”

“Any such measures should be based on scientific advice and risk assessment, and they should be, of course, proportionate to what the situation is on the ground,” the official said.

“The WHO is not advising travel restrictions in Europe. E.U. member states share WHO’s view,” the official said. “Even Italy, where there are large clusters of COVID-19 cases, and Italy's neighboring states, do not favor borders closure.”

The official said efforts are instead concentrated on coordination and assistance under an E.U. decision on serious cross-border threats to health, which supports the rapid exchange of information and swift monitoring, including elements such as aligned reporting of suspected and confirmed cases, tracing on aircrafts and travel advice.

A study by U.S. and British researchers published on Monday found that border screening would fail to detect more than half of infected people because they will not yet have developed symptoms, the virus therefore being “fundamentally undetectable.”


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