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Europe’s Plan for Reopening Borders and Travel Within the EU

By Michelle Baran

May 14, 2020

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Will Europeans be able to safely travel within the EU this summer?

Photo by RossHelen/Shutterstock

Will Europeans be able to safely travel within the EU this summer?

The European Commission unveils its vision for how travel and tourism within the continent can resume—just in time for summer. The first step is relaxing restrictions among countries with similar coronavirus transmission levels.

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This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

The European Commission (EC) this week acknowledged something we’ve all been feeling acutely during these past several weeks—that everyone is going to need a break this summer.

People need “the chance to get some well-needed rest, relaxation and fresh air,” the European Commission stated in its newly released guidance on how travel can safely resume within Europe. “As soon as the health situation allows, people should be able to catch up with friends and family, in their own EU country or across borders, with all the safety and precautionary measures needed in place.”

The EC, the executive branch of the European Union (EU), on Wednesday released a road map intended to help European countries navigate the reopening of borders and tourism businesses after months of lockdown.

The measures are focused on travel within the continent—they follow a recommendation made by the same body just last week to extend the ban on nonessential travel into the European Union until June 15, 2020. The new road map comes as European countries have been taking initial steps toward easing the lockdown orders that were established to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic on the continent.

The first step: ease restrictions between countries with lower transmission levels

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In its most recent recommendation, the European Commission stated that in order for travel and tourism to reopen, countries must first make sure that they are prepared with adequate coronavirus testing capabilities, that they can surveil and monitor travelers (while also protecting data privacy rights), and that they have contact tracing measures in place.

The proposal offers a look at a possible path forward for a continent that, similar to the United States, has been battered not just by coronavirus cases and deaths but also by a near shutdown of one of its most important economic drivers—travel. Travel and tourism contribute to almost 10 percent of the EU’s GDP in a typical (non-COVID year) and 78 percent of the population (around 347 million Europeans) traditionally vacation in their home country or another EU country, according to the European Commission.

Thus, the Commission suggested that one of the first steps should be a lifting of restrictions at the European Union’s internal borders between countries that have similar levels of coronavirus transmissions.

“The approach must also be flexible, including the possibility to reintroduce certain measures if the epidemiological situation requires,” the European Commission warned.

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In a similar vein to what the Commission suggested, on May 6, Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas wrote on Twitter that he’d reached an agreement with the prime ministers of neighboring Latvia and Lithuania to create what is more frequently being referred to as a “travel bubble” between all three countries by opening borders on May 15. “It’s a big step towards life as normal,” he wrote. With the move, the Baltic states would be the first to create such a bubble. (Anyone entering from outside these countries will still need to self-quarantine for 14 days.)

The Commission is responsible for proposing legislation but its recommendations are not binding. Ultimately, it is up to individual European leaders to establish the legislation that gets carried out, and each European country has voiced its own, slightly different approach to the possibility of reopening to travel. 

In France, a recent bill proposes implementing a 14-day quarantine on travelers from abroad, but it hasn’t been made clear whether such a quarantine would also apply to travelers coming from EU countries, or which ones. The United Kingdom plans to institute a mandatory quarantine but stated that travelers from France and Ireland would be exempt. Italy has thus far remained mostly mum on nonessential travel into and out of the country.

What travel on the continent will look like

The Commission wants travel by air, rail, water, and road to all gradually resume. The way to do so, it suggests, is by limiting contact between passengers and staff, including making sure planes and trains aren’t overly crowded, and by ensuring masks are worn when a safe distance can’t be well established.

A Restaurant in Amsterdam Set Up Individual Greenhouses for Socially-Distant Dining

The guidelines also include recommendations for hotels, such as limiting the number of people who can gather in the lobby, relying on staggered reservations for meal times to keep restaurant capacities at a minimum, and constant cleaning of frequently touched surfaces. Beaches, pools, cafés, bars, and restaurants should all implement physical distancing measures.

The European Commission believes that Europeans will soon be able to frequent beaches, pools, cafés, bars, and restaurants that have implemented proper physical distancing measures.

“Tourism will not be risk-free”

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According to the Commission, this road map was built with the ultimate intention of allowing people in Europe to safely travel and stay at hotels and campsites, eat and drink at restaurants, bars, and cafés, and go to beaches and other scenic outdoor areas, but they do not come without a large warning note attached.

“We know how much European citizens are looking forward to summer and to travel,” the commissioner for health and food safety, Stella Kyriakides, said in a statement. “But deconfinement and tourism will not be risk-free as long as the virus circulates among us. We need to maintain vigilance, physical distancing and rigorous health precautions across the whole tourism and transport ecosystem to prevent further outbreaks as much as possible. We will not allow our efforts to be lost.”

For the time being, these measures are most relevant to those who live in Europe as the rest of us await the further lifting of restrictions on travel into Europe from abroad.

>> Next: When Will We Be Able to Travel to Europe?

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