Brussels has moved to curb the export of protective equipment for coronavirus outside the EU while warning of possible shortages in shops if member states fail to co-ordinate on border controls.
The European Commission said on Sunday it had adopted an “authorisation scheme” to restrict sales of the safety gear and would announce guidance on Monday to ease movement of goods and essential workers during the pandemic.
The Brussels action comes after border closures, by countries including Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic late last week, were followed by a wave of frontier restrictions in other member states as the pandemic’s impact grew.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, said the scheme to keep coronavirus protective equipment inside the EU formed part of a three-pronged strategy including increased production of the gear and efforts to ease exports of it within the bloc according to need.
“We need to help each other,” she said in a video posted on social media. “By producing more, keeping it in the European Union and sharing with each other we can protect our health workers and patients and contain the spread of the virus.”
She also called on governments to co-ordinate border closures and said the commission would unveil recommendations on how to keep goods and staff in critical jobs moving across frontiers in the face of restrictions.
“If we do not take action now, shops will start facing difficulties in refilling their stocks of certain products coming from elsewhere in the single market,” she said. “Protecting people’s health should not block goods and essential staff from reaching patients, health systems, factories and shops.”
The call comes after reports over recent days of disruption. Traffic queues up to 80km long were reported from the Brenner Pass, between Austria and Italy, after Vienna had shut the frontier. The tailbacks built up even though the closure made exceptions for through and goods traffic.
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The spate of border shutdowns has stoked a backlash over the lack of co-ordination and the risk that the measures will prove ineffective while also causing serious economic damage.
Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, said on Sunday that the pandemic had shown that the EU was “not fit and designed to react fast in times of crisis, either health, security or war”.
Marko Mihkelson, vice-chair of the Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said in a tweet: “EU member states are acting in their national lockdowns without any visible co-ordination between each other. This is [a] serious stress test for the future of EU. Our citizens must see and feel real help and action from EU in dealing with [the] outbreak of Covid-19.”
The commission also wants to improve capacity for triage of possible coronavirus symptoms through temperature checks and visual assessments at EU external and internal borders, officials said. Brussels and member states are also reviewing whether any additional frontier controls are needed at the external border of both the EU and the 26-country Schengen passport-free travel zone, which includes several non-EU states.
“The whole point is really co-ordination,” said one EU official. “We want to avoid new cases being brought in — and we also want to avoid exporting this to other parts of the world.”
Italy has the second-highest number of confirmed cases after China. On Sunday Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK were all among the 10 most affected countries.
The commission has to operate largely by persuasion in its response, because EU member states retain sovereignty in matters of national security and public emergencies. Countries in the Schengen travel zone have discretion to reimpose border controls as long as they are a time-limited, proportionate and last resort option.