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EU closes borders: What you need to know

Kristie Pladson
March 18, 2020

All EU member states have agreed to close their borders to non-EU visitors in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Brussels hopes the move will convince the bloc to keep its internal borders open.

EU citizen signs at the arrivals in Dusseldorf International Airport in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/N. Economou

All 27 EU member states on Tuesday evening committed to implementing travel restriction measures meant to curb the spread of coronavirus in and from Europe, currently the epicenter of the global COVID-19 outbreak.

The plan, proposed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday, restricts EU entry for non-EU residents.

Read more: Coronavirus, cold, or flu symptoms: Should I see a doctor?

As each member state begins puts the plan into action, much remains unclear about what the restrictions entail.

What is the plan?

The proposal from the European Commission is not an order but rather an official opinion on what EU member states should do. By agreeing to it, EU member states have said they will temporarily restrict non-essential journeys to travelers from third countries to the bloc.

European Council President Charles Michel said: "The message we want to give you is that we are rallying together…We are faced with a serious crisis, an exceptional one in terms of magnitude and nature…We want to move ahead together. We want to meet the same objectives together. We want to push back this threat. We want to slow down this virus."

Can I still travel to the EU?

The restrictions do not apply to EU or Schengen state citizens or long-term residents of either as well as their immediate family members.

Non-EU citizens, however, will be refused entry into the bloc, unless they have an "essential" function or need that requires them to do.

Read more: Why coronavirus fears are disproportionate compared with other health risks

To the extent that the travel is work-related, restrictions do not apply to healthcare and health research professionals, people engaged in the transport of goods, and diplomats, military personnel, and humanitarian aid workers.

Passengers in transit, those traveling due to family emergencies, or people seeking asylum are also free to enter the bloc, as are frontier workers who commute legally into an EU member state from a neighboring country.

UK citizens, who are considered EU citizens through the end of the year, are also free to enter.

Read more: Coronavirus — What countries are doing to minimize economic damage

Visa holders will need to verify with their destination country whether they will be allowed entry. In Germany, for example, holders of long-term visas, like students, will still be allowed entry while short-term visas for tourism or work trips will not be accepted.

When will it start?

When to institute the restrictions is the prerogative of each member state. According to the European Commission website, border controls have been reinstated in Norway, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria.

How long will it last?

The commission proposes a timeframe of 30 days, with the possibility of an extension pending further developments.

How will it be implemented?

The decision to carry out the measures and how ultimately lies with each individual member states.

For the plan to be effective, it requires a coordinated effort "by Schengen States for all external borders at the same time and in a uniform manner," the commission's memo on the proposal said.

Read more: Germany turning people back at the airport: What you need to know

Closing the EU border in just one country would be ineffective in stemming the flow of the virus from non-EU countries. Travelers could still enter the Schengen area via another external border.

And within the EU?

The purpose of the new restrictions is to keep individual EU states from closing their national borders.

A coordinated EU border closure effort between all member states will uphold the EU's principle of freedom of movement, the commission argues. This is particularly important in maintaining the free flow of goods, particularly essential goods like food and medicine or medical equipment, on which the EU's One Market principle relies.

Several EU member states have already closed their national borders. The commission hopes the new restrictions will encourage them to lift internal border control measures.

"These measures risk having a serious impact on the functioning of the Single Market as the EU and the Schengen area is characterized by a high degree of integration, with millions of people crossing internal borders every day," it said.

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