BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union is considering the drastic step of suspending nearly all incoming travel to the 27-member bloc to combat not only the coronavirus but also the “every country for itself” ethos spreading rapidly through member states.
The EU’s 27 leaders will hold a teleconference on Tuesday to discuss the proposal, which would cover 30 European countries — all EU member states except Ireland, plus the four non-EU countries that are part of the Schengen border-free zone.
But at least eight EU states have already taken matters into their own hands, unilaterally shutting out foreign nationals or partially closing their borders to one or more neighboring country. They include the EU’s biggest state, founder-member Germany.
Those decisions have left Schengen, a pillar of European free movement for 35 years, in tatters, for now at least.
French President Emmanuel Macron, a passionate integrationist, on Monday condemned the closures after a phone briefing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU officials.
But Merkel, who might have been expected to side with him, insisted later in the day that Germany’s closures were necessary, albeit temporary.
Even Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s proposal was not entirely convincing.
“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” she said - leaving open the question of how that would be achieved by insulating the bloc against infections from outside while freeing travel between the 30 affected countries inside.
At least part of her concern focuses on one of the bloc’s reasons for existence - solidarity between members.
On Sunday, as the line of trucks queuing to enter Poland from Germany grew longer and longer, she said border closures hurt the flow of goods and piled extra pressure on the countries suffering most from the disease.
“We need to keep goods flowing across Europe without obstacles,” she said. “Thousands of bus and truck drivers are stranded at internal borders on parking lots, creating more health risks and disrupting our supply chains.”
In Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, where right-wing or populist governments are trying to reassure citizens that they are protected, the call for solidarity fell on deaf ears.
“President von der Leyen is concerned about the internal market - at a time when protecting the health of all of us is an absolute priority for me,” said Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said migration from outside the bloc, long his bete noire, was fuelling the disease.
“Hungary has managed to defend against migration, so we are protected against the infections migrants may bring with them,” he said.
But such objections are not confined to nationalist governments. Austria, Denmark, Estonia and Latvia were the other four countries to inform the Commission about suspensions of the Schengen agreement, while Slovenia and Slovakia had also implemented border closures but not yet informed the Commission.
As part of her effort to promote solidarity, von der Leyen wants member states to end national bans on the export of medical equipment within the bloc.
In Italy, the hardest-hit EU member, desperately short of intensive care facilities and equipment, resentment has been growing that there has not been more EU support.
Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini said on Friday that the EU’s performance so far was “yet another demonstration that if this is the Europe we have to leave to our children, then it might be worth doing something different”.
But even so, von der Leyen’s plan risks aggrieving others.
In return for freeing medical equipment exports within the bloc, she would stop the export of those same goods outside the EU.
That would mean Britain and other non-EU countries will not be able to import masks, gloves, protective clothing or ventilators from the EU without the approval of member states.
But Serbia, a longstanding candidate to join the bloc, was also furious. President Aleksandar Vucic said the EU’s approach meant he had no option but to turn, as Italy has, to China for help in combating the coronavirus.
“By now you have all understood that great international solidarity actually does not exist. European solidarity does not exist,” Vucic said on Sunday.
“I believe in my brother, my friend, Xi Jinping, and I believe in help from China. The only country that can help us now is China. For the rest of them, thanks for nothing.”
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade, Robert Muller in Prague, Krisztina Than in Budapest and Angelo Amante in Rome