EU heads agree to close borders for 30 days in fight against coronavirus

17 March 2020, 19:26 | Updated: 17 March 2020, 21:00

Ursula Von Der Leyen has announced the EU has closed its borders
Ursula Von Der Leyen has announced the EU has closed its borders. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

The EU has agreed to close its borders to the rest of the world in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen told a press conference: "UK are citizens are EU citizens as we are still in the transition period."

EU leaders agreed on Tuesday to shut down the 27-nation's bloc's external borders immediately.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said citizens of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and Norway are exempt.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the proposal by EU officials "got a lot of support by the member states. It's up to them now to implement. They said they will immediately do that".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that European leaders agreed in a conference call to the Commission's proposal for an entry ban with "very, very limited exceptions".

The EU leaders also agreed to coordinate the repatriation of EU citizens stranded outside the bloc, she said.

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.

Ms 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," Ms von der Leyen told reporters.

In a new update on Tuesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that 61,098 cases of 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 lockdowns, 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.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said citizens of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and Norway are exempt.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said citizens of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and Norway are exempt. Picture: PA

Asked Monday whether Europe can ever return to real ID-check free travel after this, Ms 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 on Tuesday are relatively modest, as Europe's centralised 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 on 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."

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