Across Europe, reopening borders in time for summer

Crowds pass by the Piazza Duomo in Milan, May 10, 2020. Countries across Europe, eyeing the summer holidays, are taking steps to begin reopening borders that had been closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)
Europeans longing to swap their balconies for beaches, mountains or museums elsewhere on the continent got a morale boost on Wednesday, when the European Commission recommended the reopening of borders that were closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

With new infections beginning to recede and governments from Riga to Rome easing lockdowns, concerns are now turning toward the resumption of cross-border vacation travel, which had been expected to generate 2020 spending of 1.3 billion euros, or $1.4 billion, before the border lockdowns.

This spending is especially important during the summer months when Europeans shutter their shops and take a collective time out — long derided on the other side of the Atlantic as a decadent indulgence — but essential to the economies of many member states.

“We are helping European tourism get back on track while staying healthy and safe,” said Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, in a statement announcing guidelines aimed at helping the European Union’s 27 member states reopen their borders. “Today we propose a common European approach to managing what will remain a difficult 2020 summer season.”

But recommendations from the Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, are not binding. They raise the risk that each member state will either create its own policies, or form bubbles among like-minded partners, creating a patchwork of measures that could entangle planning and endanger public health.

Some of the first countries to reopen have done so on a limited basis, with agreements struck among neighbouring countries, and restrictions remaining in place for anyone trying to enter from further afield. Restrictions are also in place for those going to and from Italy and Spain, the bloc’s hardest-hit members — and often its most popular tourist destinations.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of Germany said that together with Austria, France and Switzerland, his country would begin easing border restrictions beginning Saturday, with the aim of lifting them entirely by June 15. Travelers still need a reason for crossing a border in the coming month, but the police will carry out only spot checks, Seehofer said.

The idea is to allow more freedom of movement in border regions where families and partners have been divided since mid-March and begin laying the groundwork for a return to fully opened borders in time for summer vacations — in countries with similar rates of coronavirus infection.

“From mid-June we want to see free travel in Europe again,” Seehofer told reporters. “That is our goal.”

But Seehofer also said such a goal remained contingent on the ability to manage the spread of the virus on either side of a shared border.

The prospect of unfettered vacation travel, even with restrictions that include extra hygiene measures, such as masks and social distancing, does not apply to Italy or Spain.

More than 27 million people in the European Union, or 12% of the bloc’s workforce, have jobs in tourism. In southern member states, which are only beginning to recover from the fallout of the debt crisis a decade ago, income generated by tourism accounts for as much as 20% of their economies.

Even wealthier countries, such as Austria, are eager to welcome European tourists. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pushed hard to reach an agreement to reopen its borders with Germany. The model of first easing checkpoints, and then fully reopening the borders on the principle of “as much freedom as possible and as many restrictions as necessary,” could serve as a blueprint for agreements with its other neighbours, he said.

Further east, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have agreed to allow travel among them beginning Friday. Anyone entering from outside the region will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine.

But Croatia, which suffered a 99% drop in visits and 88% fall in overnight stays this spring in comparison to April last year, is hoping to attract sun-seeking visitors unable to reach Italy or Spain.

The country has introduced exceptions in its border closures and is in negotiations with several countries, including neighbouring Slovenia and others, to ensure they will be able to visit the country’s Dalmatian coast as soon as possible, said the Croatian tourism minister, Gari Cappelli.

“It is very clear — you can come to a hotel, camp, private accommodation, you can eat in restaurants, inside and outside. You can rent a boat and go sailing; marinas are open,” Cappelli said in an interview with state-owned media. “Croatia from today breathes tourism.”

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