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Europe Moves to Shut Out Visitors to Slow Coronavirus

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BRUSSELS — European leaders were preparing Tuesday to close off a region of 30 countries and more than 450 million people to nearly all visitors from the rest of the world in a bid to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, starting a long stretch of isolation like nothing in modern history outside wartime.

Heads of government from the 27 European Union members were due to meet by teleconference to approve a proposal by the bloc’s executive to close a region stretching from Portugal to Finland, and from Greece to Iceland, to nonessential visitors for at least 30 days. That period that could be extended.

The closing represents the first coordinated response to the epidemic by the European Union, the world’s wealthiest and most integrated club of countries. Until now, governments have pursued widely differing measures to slow down the virus at home, at times blaming one another for the epidemic’s spread.

The restrictions would apply to 26-member European Union member countries and four others that participate in one of the bloc’s proudest achievements: the Schengen Area, which allows unfettered, passport-free travel across borders. They come even as many European countries are walling themselves off, re-erecting border controls that some of them took down decades ago.

Special exceptions would be made for European citizens and residents coming home, although some countries were asking them to self-isolate for two weeks, in some cases away from their families. Medical professionals and scientists would also be exempt to the measures.

As a practical matter, the Europe-wide lockdown, if approved, would be up to each country to put in place. The European Commission does not have the ability to enforce it. Each member state would be able to tweak the restriction on whom it might allow in, and under what conditions.

Among European Union countries, only Ireland would not be covered by the shutdown, because it has a passport-free travel agreement with Britain, which left the bloc in January and has never belonged to the open-border zone. But European leaders say they would like Dublin and London to join them in closing off most travel from outside the region.

The European move would put additional pressure on the British government which has come under some criticism for taking a more lax approach to the crisis than many of its neighbors.

London has been toughening its tactics.

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people to keep their distance from one another and to stay away from public gathering places, though the measures are voluntary and schools remain open. And on Tuesday, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, advised British citizens against all nonessential travel worldwide for an initial period of 30 days.

Much of the European Union was initially resistant to travel restrictions.

But formalizing continentwide restrictions became necessary, European officials said, as major countries like the United States advised their citizens to avoid Europe, and as European countries told their own citizens to avoid neighboring nations.

There was concern that the slowdown of trade and movement might begin to eat away at the carefully-knit fabric binding the 27 countries together. Twelve countries in the Schengen zone have said they are reintroducing border checks as part of their coronavirus response — a serious blow to the project of European integration.

Several European countries also specifically blocked travelers from Spain, which on Tuesday appeared to be fast catching up with Italy’s grim coronavirus toll, recording the second-highest death toll in Europe. At least 500 people have died in the country, and there have been 11,400 confirmed cases.

The youngest victim identified was Francisco García, a soccer coach from Málaga, who died Sunday. He was 21 and had recently gone to hospital with what initially seemed to be pneumonia, according to local media reports. Doctors found that he had both leukemia and coronavirus and he died soon after.

The imminent suspension of travel set off a series of efforts to bring Europeans home and send tourists away.

Germany plans to repatriate thousands of German tourists scattered around the globe, its foreign minister said on Tuesday.

“We will do everything possible to make it possible for the thousands of Germans stranded abroad to return to Germany in the coming days,” said Heiko Maas, the foreign minister.

Mr. Maas urged Germans already at home to stay there and put off any planned travel. “This warning against tourist travel applies worldwide,” he said.

Hours after Spain closed its land borders at midnight Monday, in a bid to stop infected Spaniards from taking the virus to neighboring nations, the authorities on the country’s Canary and Balearic Islands — two of Spain’s main tourism destinations — tried to limit access to their areas from mainland Spain.

They asked tourists to go home.

Reporting was contributed by Monika Pronzcuk from Brussels; Melissa Eddy from Berlin; Raphael Minder from Madrid; and Iliana Magra from London.


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