BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders agreed Tuesday to immediately impose travel restrictions on most foreigners entering Europe for at least 30 days to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, and to set up fast-track transport lanes to keep vital medical equipment, food and goods flowing smoothly inside the bloc.
As the virus case count in Europe climbed to over 60,000 and with more than 2,700 people dead, nervous national governments have introduced quick-fix measures such as partial border closures and quarantines with little consultation. The EU sought over three hours of video talks to forge a united front against an illness that is also wreaking economic havoc.
“We reaffirmed the need to work together and do everything necessary to tackle the crisis and its consequences,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters. He said the 27 EU countries agreed to impose border restrictions on tourism and non-essential business “as fast as possible.”
The plan exempts long-term EU residents, diplomats, some healthcare and transport workers.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said her proposal for the restrictions “got a lot of support by the member states. It’s up to them now to implement. They said they will immediately do that.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the leaders agreed in a conference call to an entry ban with “very, very limited exceptions,” and that Germany would start implementing it immediately.
Merkel said citizens of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and Norway are exempt. The EU leaders also agreed to coordinate the repatriation of EU citizens stranded outside the bloc, she said.
Von der Leyen said they also backed a proposal to set up “green lanes” for trucks and other priority vehicles aimed at beating the traffic jams that have formed around crossing points on internal borders, where no ID or vehicle checks were required just days ago.
Those transport guidelines, she said, “have to be implemented now”
The leaders agreed to meet again for a third video conference and to cancel a summit they planned to attend in Brussels late next week.
“We are ready to do everything that is required. We shall not hesitate to take additional measures as the situation evolves,” von der Leyen told reporters.
In a new update Tuesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that 61,098 cases of the coronavirus have now been reported in Europe and that 2,740 people have died, the overwhelming majority in Italy.
After Italy, ground zero in Europe’s battle with COVID-19, Spain and now France have imposed lock-downs, confining citizens to their homes except for urgent business like buying food or heading to any hospital that might still have the capacity to treat them.
Nine countries have informed the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, that they’ve reintroduced ID checks inside Europe’s passport-free Schengen Area. Among them are Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, which all took unilateral action to halt the influx of migrants in 2015.
Indeed, it is a similar challenge that leaders are grappling with as they confront the coronavirus — how to ensure that the fraying solidarity among partners in the same European club does not completely unravel as the crisis deepens.
Asked Monday whether Europe can ever return to real ID-check free travel after this, Merkel said: “I hope so. But it’s been shown that coordination didn’t work well everywhere the way one would have hoped.”
The EU proposals endorsed Tuesday are relatively modest, as Europe’s centralized powers in this crisis are limited. While it may be a Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc remains an accumulation of 27 individual countries, some with populist and far-right governments that reject orders from Brussels.
“In recent days, European countries failed to coordinate their approach,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Saturday as he announced the closure of retail businesses in his country. “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice.”
In times of crisis, Europe’s machinery is painfully slow. Like a super-butler dealing with an unpredictable 27-headed master, the EU’s massive bureaucracy offers ideas, proposes plans and occasionally cajoles but often it must wait for approval.