In the spring, various European countries closed their borders unilaterally and overnight. This resulted in uncoordinated chaos. With the start of the second wave and a sharp rise in infections that are already causing severe problems in most European countries, a standard European COVID-19 map has been issued. It is based on the traffic light system, allowing adequate coordination intra-European travel and is intended to prevent similar chaos to that of the past spring.

Learning from Past Mistakes

The principle of freedom of movement was exposed to chaos in the spring when all European countries closed their borders unilaterally without relying on a European Union solution beforehand. The hasty reaction paired with an utter lack of coordination resulted in long traffic jams and, as delivery trucks sometimes had to wait days to be processed, it also resulted in a shortage of supplies for supermarkets and sometimes stalled goods altogether.

However, the European countries appear to have learned from their past mistake. With the rapid increase in coronavirus infections across the continent, and the urgent need to have mechanisms in place to provide some efforts to slow down cross-border infections, the chaos is unlikely to repeat itself.

Several European countries have already introduced new and tight restrictions: risk areas, quarantine, testing obligations — different rules apply everywhere. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks of a patchwork quilt that hardly anyone comprehends. A change and increased cooperation are thus needed.

A Reliable COVID-19 Mapping System?

Europe’s new hope is based on a standard European COVID-19 map based on the traffic light system that significantly increases coordination. Depending on the infection rate, individual regions are classified as green, yellow, or red zones. If there is no reliable information, the area concerned remains gray.

If, on average, less than 25 people per 100,000 inhabitants are infected with the coronavirus within two weeks, the traffic light shows green, meaning travel restrictions do not exist. If there are more than 25 cases, the traffic light jumps to yellow. The red level is reached at 50 or more new cases. When evaluating the regions, the rate of positive tests also plays a role.

For travelers from the yellow and red zones, each country should be able to decide for itself whether and, if so, which restrictions apply. However, the states are concerned, and the EU Commission must be informed of this as quickly as possible.

Will the Travel Map Work?

The COVID-19 map is created by the Sweden-based European Health Agency (ECDC, European Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and updated weekly. However, whether this strategy is coherent and useful to tackle the previous chaos is uncertain. Some European ministers have their doubts.

Luxembourg’s Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Jean Asselborn, for example – or Austria’s Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution Karoline Edtstadler — remain doubtful. Both are concerned that the strategy of the three-tier system is already obsolete.

“There is now something on the table that we can, unfortunately, see that reality has overtaken it,” says Edtstadler.

Moreover, the criteria were not sufficiently accurate. Both argue that if one thought it through and did the math, most of Europe’s regions should alreadybe  colored red on the map. However, a higher level than red is currently non-existent.

The German EU Council Presidency, on the other hand, considers the map to be a first and important step which would have to be followed by others. After all, the coordination of the coronavirus restriction measures is a dramatic test for the entire European Union. It can be adjusted and increased to the best of the union’s ability, but will also almost always entail some form of a trial-and-error approach.