March 13, 2020 / 1:53 PM / 16 days ago

EU grapples with border curbs as coronavirus spreads

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Any border restrictions imposed inside the European Union’s zone of free travel to contain the spread of the coronavirus must be coordinated to ensure they are not counterproductive, EU ministers said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A road sign reading "traffic control" is pictured near the location where medics check the temperatures of people coming from Italy due to the spreading of the coronavirus at the Brenner Pass border between Italy and Austria, March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert/File Photo

After the coronavirus outbreak in China late last year, the virus is now spreading rapidly in Europe. Measures against it have included the Czech Republic and Slovakia tightening their borders and Austria introducing border checks to deny entry from Italy, the country hit the hardest by the coronavirus in Europe.

Swedish interior minister Mikael Damberg said before a meeting in Brussels that countries introducing tighter border measures must be careful not to aggravate the healthcare emergency.

“You have to take the right measures at the right time,” he said. “They must be aware that (the) transportation system has to work for food and healthcare materials - the kind of things that are important for European countries so we don’t make problems for each other handling the crisis.”

Sweden has had some border checks in place inside what should normally be the EU’s Schengen zone of free travel since a sharp increase in arrivals of refugees and migrants from the Middle East in 2015-16.

Back then, several EU countries shut down their borders to prevent people from moving across the bloc towards wealthy states such as Germany and Sweden to seek asylum.

The Schengen zone all but collapsed and several countries still have some form of border controls in place years later.

The EU’s top interior official, Commissioner Ylva Johansson, said that any border curbs must be “coordinated, operational, proportionate and effective”.

Austria has also introduced border checks to deny entry from Italy, the country hit the hardest by the coronavirus spread in Europe.

“We should try to find a European agreement. I don’t think we should shut borders,” said Luxembourg’s interior minister Jean Asselborn.

The EU’s economic powerhouse, Germany, has not acted to tighten its borders for now, It has left its regions to decide on school closures and announced steps to cushion the economic hit of the pandemic.

But Spain stepped up its response significantly on Thursday as infections soared, placing four towns under quarantine. It has also ordered a ban on flights from Italy.

Croatia’s interior minister, Davor Bozinovic, echoed the call for more EU coordination.

“We are too close to each other. If we were acting in one way, it would be much better for all us,” he said.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Marine Strauss and Bart Meijer, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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