EU to keep Covid-19 curbs on non-essential travel amid chaotic border measures

German officers control a truck and several cars at the border with the Czech Republic in Breitenau, as Germany tries to stem the spread of coronavirus variants. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS/BERLIN (REUTERS) - European Union government leaders will agree on Thursday to maintain curbs on non-essential travel within the EU, despite the bloc's executive asking six countries to ease border restrictions on Tuesday (Feb 23).

Unilateral moves by EU member countries to combat the spread of new coronavirus variants has disrupted the flow of goods within the bloc's 27-nation single market and risks shutting parts of the Franco-German border.

Draft conclusions for an EU leaders video-conference on Thursday and Friday, seen by Reuters, said countries would agree non-essential travel in the bloc must remain restricted because the risk of Covid-19 contagion remains serious and new variants of the virus pose additional challenges.

"Restrictive measures (regarding) non-essential travel may still be needed to contain the spread of the virus," European Council President Charles Michel wrote in a letter to EU government leaders ahead of the meeting.

The executive European Commission is seeking a coordinated approach to border curbs among EU states. It said on Tuesday it had given Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden 10 days to justify their unilateral restrictions, which Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said had "gone too far".

A European Commission spokesman said the bloc risked "fragmentation and disruptions to free movement and to supply chains - something we have witnessed again the past weeks".

Germany, having introduced checks along its normally open frontiers with the Czech Republic and Austria, was in talks with France on averting similar measures in the eastern French Moselle region that borders Germany.

The Moselle region has experienced a surge in a more easily transmissible variant of the coronavirus, as have Austria's Alpine Tyrol region and the Czech Republic.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for "common standards for travel and the transport of goods within the EU to ensure the functioning of the single market".

'Massive strain'

In a patchwork response to the spread of more transmissible coronavirus mutations, nine EU countries have reinstated border controls in what is normally a passport-free travel zone.

The Commission focused on six, including Germany and neighbouring Belgium where extra restrictions on movement include a complete ban on non-essential trips into and out of the latter country.

Michael Roth, Germany's Europe Minister, defended Berlin's actions. "These measures obviously put a massive strain on border regions... but the protection of our citizens is paramount," he said.

French Europe minister Clement Beaune told Reuters that Berlin and Paris had given themselves 48 hours to coordinate health measures such as increased testing in the Moselle region to avoid shutting their border there.

"Our cross-border workers need to move around for their work and daily lives," Beaune said.

French President Emmanuel Macron says internal borders between EU countries should remain open. He clashed with Germany last year after Berlin closed frontiers during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Germany now aims to avoid the blanket border controls that were imposed in 2020, sources in Berlin said as the Czech Republic asked for EU help to ease Germany's restrictions.

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