Germany is to close its borders with neighbouring countries including France, the latest in a string of tough actions by EU member states to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The move by Berlin to shut the borders with Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Denmark will come into force at 8am on Monday and marks an abrupt volte-face by Angela Merkel’s government.
She had previously argued in favour of close co-ordination between member states and against unilateral actions to slow the spread. As recently as Wednesday, Ms Merkel had said EU countries “should not be isolating ourselves from one another” and that they needed to adopt a “unified approach that is, as far as possible, co-ordinated [between us]”.
But speaking on Sunday, Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, said the government needed to “disrupt the chains of infection”. He added: “To do that, we have to limit not only large events and social contact, but also the movement of people.”
He said the virus was spreading “quickly and aggressively”, both in Germany and across the rest of the EU, and that the outbreak had “not yet reached its peak”. He added: “The situation is very serious and we must, and will, react to it.”
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, warned on Friday that the World Health Organisation did not consider travel bans to be effective. She said sealing off frontiers had a “strong social and economic impact” and would “disrupt people’s lives and business across the borders”.
Mr Seehofer, however, defended Germany’s decision to go it alone. “As long as there is no European solution, one must act in the interests of one’s own population,” he said. “They are guilty who don’t act at all.”
The German move highlights the cracks that are beginning to form in the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel zone as the pandemic spreads. Schengen countries have the discretion to reimpose border controls but only if they are time-limited, proportionate and are a last resort.
The move by Berlin followed similar border closures by Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all closed their borders on Saturday.
Mr Seehofer said Germany’s restrictions would not affect Germans re-entering the country and would also not be applied to commuters and goods traffic. But “all travellers without a valid reason to travel will no longer be able to enter or leave the country”, he said. “For that reason I appeal to all citizens to refrain from all unnecessary travel,” he added.
The closure of the border is the latest in a series of increasingly draconian measures adopted by the German authorities to slow the spread of virus. Schools and day-care centres have been closed throughout the country, and events with more than 50 attendees banned. In the capital Berlin, museums, galleries and theatres have been shuttered, as have gyms, swimming pools and nightclubs.
The decision to close the border was co-ordinated between Angela Merkel’s federal government and the authorities in the border states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein.
The shutdown will be enforced by the federal police with help from police in those border states. Bild Zeitung reported that the measure was being taken not only to slow the pandemic, but also to prevent foreigners crossing into Germany to bulk-buy goods in German supermarkets, which has led to some supply problems in border areas.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels