Pandemic Politics: The Schengen Dilemma

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With more European cases of COVID-19 appearing every day, the subject of potential border closures in the Schengen free travel zone is becoming more prevalent. Earlier this week the European Union stated it has no plans to suspend the Schengen Agreement or recommend border closures as a way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. That was on Monday, and the situation has arguably worsened since then. Schengen’s rules provide EU member-states with discretion to apply border controls in response to internal security or a threat to public policy although the EU would prefer if they were never used. The last time Schengen was seriously challenged was in 2015 during the European migrant crisis. Border controls were unilaterally put back in effect by certain EU member-states to stem or block the flow of refugees streaming over their borders.

Given the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading around the continent, border restrictions might be coming back into play in the near future. To be honest, it is surprising to see that it has not happened yet. The Italian government refuses to suspend the Schengen Agreement and reimplement controls even as a COVID-19 outbreak is underway in Italy. Government officials appear to be nowhere near the point where border restrictions can be considered a justifiable preventative measure. “Closing down the borders would make no sense, as the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders,” junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told a French reporter.

Most other EU member-states are thinking along similar lines for the moment. If the uptick in case numbers increase, and spread into previously untouched nations in the coming days this will likely change. Policy matters, and the benefits of open borders cannot be allowed to trump public safety at a time when Europe and the rest of the world may very well stand on the brink of a major pandemic.

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