SNAPSHOT: The future of cross-border travel in Europe
- While countries across the continent are gradually re-opening their frontiers to foreign visitors, cross-border travel in Europe will remain heavily disrupted.
- A return to normal pre-COVID-19 travel flows in Europe is unlikely over the coming months as international travel becomes a highly complex undertaking.
- The recent emergence of multiple local outbreaks also provides challenges for mobility within countries.
- Overall, the easing of lockdown rules and travel restrictions reflects increasing confidence that national outbreaks have come under control. This is indicated by a broadly consistent pattern of declining cases across the continent.
- The process has been largely in line with recommendations from the European Commission (EC) that countries should prioritise re-opening borders with fellow EU and Schengen area members before granting access to nations outside Europe.
- The EU is aiming to foster closer co-ordination after an incohesive response and inconsistent introduction of border closures among members at the early stages of the crisis. Protecting the integrity of the Schengen area – widely seen as one of the EU’s main achievements – has emerged as a key priority for officials in Brussels.
- As countries are cautiously looking to re-open borders, there has also been an emergence of common travel areas among countries with similar epidemiological profiles. The three Baltic states reached an agreement to establish a common travel zone from 15 May, allowing free movement for Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian citizens. The zone, the first of its kind in Europe, has helped improve cross-border mobility in the Baltic region and restore freedom of movement. Notably, the move illustrated mutual trust among neighbouring governments as a result of similar COVID-19 responses.
- The issue of border closures has fuelled rare diplomatic tensions among traditionally close countries. For example, Norway, Finland, and Denmark moved to shut borders with Sweden as the pandemic progressed and Stockholm undertook an alternative approach to lockdowns. From 15 June, Norway began allowing unrestricted travel from neighbouring countries, including Denmark, Iceland, and Finland. With the exception of Gotland island in the Baltic Sea, Sweden has been excluded. Spain has also announced a one-week delay to re-opening its border with Portugal (at Lisbon’s request) initially set to occur on 22 June. Spain lifted restrictions to all other members of the Schengen area on 21 June.
- The EU has called on member states to lift a travel ban from countries outside the bloc on 1 July. Balkan nations, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, will be among the first to benefit.
- However, the EU is considering preventing travellers from Brazil, Russia, and the US to access the bloc once borders re-open in July. A list of countries being allowed into the EU – and those from where travellers will be refused entry – is expected to be published by next week.
- Even once Europe gradually re-opens to international travel, passenger volumes are unlikely to recover as countries, including the US, continue to advise nationals against international travel. This has practical implications as insurance policies may not cover people deciding to travel against government advice.
- Talks are underway between the UK and several EU countries to establish ‘air bridges’. This would enable travellers returning to the UK after a period in Italy, France, and Greece for example to avoid undergoing a mandatory two-week quarantine. Substantial progress in talks may prompt France to drop a quarantine requirement for UK travellers. Authorities in the UK meanwhile will reassess the quarantine rule for incoming travellers on 29 June.Several clusters of COVID-19 cases have been identified, prompting authorities to impose localised lockdowns. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, lockdown measures were implemented in the Gütersloh district, where an estimated 360,000 people live, following an outbreak at a local meatpacking plant. Over 1,500 workers tested positive and all employees are undergoing a mandatory quarantine. Museums and other entertainment venues were shut, and social distancing is being enforced. Residents can only meet one person outside their household in public. The measures are in place until 30 June. An apartment complex in the city of Göttingen has also been placed under quarantine due to a separate outbreak. Elsewhere, authorities in the region of Aragón, north-eastern Spain, re-imposed strict measures on Huesca province, where around 68,000 people live.
- These examples clearly suggest that local lockdowns – aimed at containing the spread to the wider community and other parts of the country – will be used as a first course of action. Restrictions for travel to and from affected areas will also likely be in place. Key determinants for deciding to apply a local lockdown will be the location where a new outbreak has been detected, the number of cases recorded in a short period compared to other parts of the country, and capacity at healthcare centers.
- The process of re-opening borders in Europe will be slow and uneven with a considerable degree of divergence. Indeed, countries with high infection rates have been excluded from the initial stages of this process and special conditions will continue to apply for countries with high case numbers.
- Fast-changing circumstances and varying requirements across Europe will continue to greatly complicate travel, at least over the next three months.
- Travel from countries with concerning epidemiological profiles into the EU will be severely limited, while selective bans on a case-by-case basis may be introduced on third countries with worsening case numbers.
- After summer, the possibility of a second wave in infections means that lockdowns and associated border closures may return. However, early responses to escalating case numbers will likely focus on containing outbreaks in particular regions. Local-level quarantine orders and restrictions will be preferred, while the adoption of contact-tracing apps will complement stronger early detection mechanisms.
- A more targeted approach might see the emergence of closures at selected border crossings in areas with relatively high infection rates. If a cluster is identified in a border region, then a neighbouring country will likely seek to limit any potential spread by implementing restrictions at nearby crossings. A rapid increase in case numbers and indications that the virus is spreading on a national scale will likely prompt border closures as a measure of last resort.
- In this sense, we are likely to see more co-ordination among EU member states, particularly on the issue of cross-border travel. National and international inquiries into COVID-19 responses will provide an opportunity for more harmony in future policy reactions.
- Travellers will need to regularly check for any related restrictions and requirements at destination countries. Conditions for travel and restrictions may change at short notice.
- Random testing at airports, longer processing times, and the potential for mandatory quarantines if tests are positive should all be anticipated.