EU member states are exploring how to better co-ordinate the identification of Covid-19 hotpots and the management of cross-border travel as the continent grapples with a surge in infections.
European governments are on high alert after a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus cases in some areas in recent weeks, and are keen to avoid a repeat of the chaotic scenes early in the pandemic, when multiple capitals pursued their own approach to border closures within the Schengen travel area.
A briefing paper for an EU ambassadors’ meeting in Brussels on Wednesday identifies five possible areas for improved cross-border co-ordination, including the development of common quarantine rules, the use of agreed data sources, and better mapping practices.
“It remains the responsibility of each member state to enact the measures it sees fit,” according to the paper prepared by the German presidency of the EU and seen by the Financial Times. “However, a coherent response is critical to avoid a fragmented approach as seen earlier in the year as well as to preserve the integrity of the Schengen area.”
The early weeks of the pandemic saw a particularly disjointed approach by member states as some abruptly closed borders, disrupting the internal market and leaving some citizens stranded. Since then the EU has been seeking ways to boost co-operation, but member states are still using their own criteria and quarantine practices to identify areas of risk and handle incoming travellers.
The differences in approach reflect the varying appetite for risk between countries seeking to manage the economic and health consequences of the outbreak — something that will continue to hinder efforts for better cross-border harmonisation.
A European Commission spokesperson on Monday urged capitals to replace blanket restrictions on countries with “more targeted measures which are limited in time or geographical scope”. This came after Hungary last week said it was planning to close its borders to foreign citizens as it seeks to reduce its number of cases.
EU countries could also discuss an agreed framework of measures to manage incoming travellers, including standardised quarantine procedures, testing rules and travel warnings, the German briefing paper for the ambassadors’ meeting said.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
Making progress in any of these areas across the 27 EU nations will be difficult, however, as capitals reserve the right to impose their own unilateral measures.
“The aim of the meeting on Wednesday is to have an initial discussion on whether EU countries support a closer Covid-19 co-ordination in the Schengen area, because this is all a matter of national competence,” said an EU diplomat. “The meeting could define the areas where there is greater promise of co-operation, and those where it would be more difficult to achieve this.”
The commission is also feeding into the current debate, a spokesperson said on Monday, and in its own paper has suggested co-ordination in three key areas: the use of common criteria to determine epidemiological risks, the creation of a common colour coding system for hazardous areas, and agreed approaches for handling travellers.