The EU’s founding principle of the free movement of people has already been undermined by the Turkish-Greek border crisis and now by the coronavirus outbreak. Germany, one of the bloc’s leading members, imposed temporary controls on its borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg on Monday in a bid to prevent the disease from spreading further.
It is understandable why the German Government has introduced such a drastic measure. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned that 58 million people, or 70 per cent of the country’s population, could contract Covid-19. So far, nine people have died as a result of the epidemic in Germany and 4,585 others have been infected with it.
The Impact of Covid-19 on Europe
Covid-19 has also had a devastating impact upon Germany’s car industry, which has already been damaged by fears of a no-deal Brexit and the 18-month trade war between China and the US. According to Reuters, German car giant Volkswagen is preparing to suspend production at its plant in Bratislava, Slovakia, and its Portuguese plant has announced that it will slash its output by 16 percent.
In order to contain the virus, Merkel has made the right decision. But at a time when her French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, is calling for greater EU integration by proposing the creation of a common border force, the Chancellor’s latest decision will only undermine the European project in the longer term as other nations led by more nationalistic governments, like Poland and Hungary, call for greater control over their borders.
EU Founding Principle: Free Movement of People
The free movement of people provides citizens of all EU countries with the right to work, travel and live wherever they wish in the bloc. Many European leaders wanted to prevent a repeat of the Second World War and the idea behind this principle was that allowing people to move across borders would not only boost European growth, but would help avert conflict by enabling people to mix and cooperate across borders.
The Schengen Agreement, which was signed on June 14, 1985, goes one step further and eradicates the need for border controls altogether. When it was incorporated into law by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, only the UK and Ireland opted out of it, which is why the British Government was able to refuse to take in dozens of refugees during the 2015 refugee crisis.
In 2016, border controls were temporarily reintroduced in seven Schengen countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and Sweden) following the refugee crisis. This is why Merkel’s decision to impose temporary border checks again is all the more significant, because it shows that her government is under increasing pressure to protect its borders as the coronavirus epidemic continues.
The rest of Europe is beginning to follow Germany’s lead. Sky News reports that Macron has announced that the EU’s borders will be closed at Tuesday lunchtime for 30 days. The French President warned that drastic measures were required because people have not complied with earlier public health measures.
Either way, the coronavirus represents the final nail in the coffin for the free movement of people and the Schengen Agreement. It is clear that countries across the EU will demand greater border protection in the future as COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable global supplies are to an epidemic of this scale. The likelihood is that more countries will choose to quit Schengen because, altogether, the principle of the free movement of people will never be up for renegotiation in the EU’s eyes. Yet it is hard to argue the bloc has a future when one of its founding principles has proven to be so impractical in an emergency.