Coronavirus: Leaders shut Europe's borders to fight outbreak

A man walks with his groceries beside a mural portraying a person wearing a gas mask, in Milan, Italy. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a press statement on the spread of Covid-19 in Berlin on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (AFP, NYTIMES) - The European Union will impose an entry ban on travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days to battle the spread of the coronavirus, European leaders decided on Tuesday (March 17).

The decision is most significant emergency measure yet from the EU, which has scrambled to come up with a unified response to the deadly epidemic that is sweeping the continent.

The 27 leaders met by videoconference to agree the ban on non-essential travel to the bloc - an idea strongly backed by France, hoping to persuade member states that they need not close doors to each other.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had proposed the bloc's Schengen passport-free zone impose the measure, a drastic and unprecedented move, and that fellow EU states outside the zone follow suit.

The ban will be in effect for an initial period of 30 days and will not affect Europeans returning home, social workers, cross-border workers, or citizens of former EU member Britain.

As a practical matter, the European Union lockdown will be up to each country to put in place; the bloc does not have the ability to enforce it. Each member state would be able to tweak the restrictions on whom it might allow in, and under what conditions.

"It's up to them now to implement," Ms von der Leyen said. "They said they will immediately do that."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said states "agreed to impose an entry ban" into the bloc, with only nationals of closely-aligned EFTA countries, such as Norway or Iceland, as well as Britain, exempt from the restriction.

"Germany will implement it immediately," added the leader of Europe's biggest economy, which had initially closed its national borders.

"This is an exceptional measure that shouldn't last longer than necessary," Sweden's Minister for Home Affairs Mikael Damberg told a Stockholm press conference.

The ban comes as EU countries have unilaterally adopted various policies to slow the rapid surge of coronavirus on the continent.

After the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron's office said he had "firmly condemned uncoordinated measures to control internal EU borders, which are not helpful in terms of health and hurt the economy."

Several EU countries have closed their frontiers or imposed new health screening controls that slow cross-border freight traffic, despite calls from Brussels for a single European plan.


Italy, Spain, France and now Belgium have opted for widespread lockdowns, ordering citizens to stay at home for all but essential trips, while the Netherlands has taken a looser stance, hoping to build collective immunity.

The EU's von der Leyen, a trained doctor, said the stricter measures were "fully approved" by a newly formed panel of experts.

These were "to slow down the spread of the virus, to make sure that we have no public gatherings, that universities and schools are closed," she said.

"We want people... not to have contact with each other, so that we can reduce... the pressure on the health sector and the patients that have to be treated."

The leaders also discussed the devastating economic fall-out from the crisis, but held off from any pan-European response for now.

This could be addressed in future meetings with a two-day meeting of EU leaders set for next week now cancelled and scheduled to be replaced by a videoconference at an undetermined date.

Fixing the economy for now has been limited to spending by national governments, as well as liquidity by the European Central Bank, which announced a series of "surgical" measures, but no rate cut, last week.

The leaders welcomed moves by the European Commission to ease budget rules for crisis-hit countries, most notably financially-pressed Italy which is the worst hit by the virus.

But powerful member Germany does not want to activate the euro zone's €410 billion (S$640 billion) bailout fund, partly out of worry of causing more market panic.

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