A Smarter Approach to Europe’s Border Policy During the Pandemic

22 avril 2020

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The novel coronavirus pandemic is arguably the greatest challenge facing Europe since World War II. At the time of writing, there are almost one million cases and 100,000 deaths in the European Union and the European Economic Area (EU/EEA), about half of the total cases and deaths worldwide.[i] Some EU Member States closed their external borders in response to the pandemic, and the EU followed suit by announcing a 30-day closure of the Schengen Zone external borders on March 17, which the European Commission plans to extend until mid-May.[ii]

The EU’s border policy response to the pandemic is unsatisfactory, as it leads to human rights violations, immense economic costs, and political discord. A more comprehensive, open-border strategy is needed, one that takes into account the nature of a pandemic and the role that borders play in aggravating or suppressing transmission rates. With sufficient and coordinated border-control procedures, Europe can, and should, safely maintain open borders.

How to Stop a Pandemic

The key metric that guides all policy during a pandemic is the transmission rate (R). This term represents how many people will contract the virus from a single contaminated person. When R is above 1, the virus spreads exponentially. When R is below 1, the virus eventually dies down. R changes based on different policy responses that, when effective, curb the transmission rate.

Despite countries’ differing domestic circumstances, successful policy responses to the coronavirus typically require the same overarching framework: a suppression strategy in two phases.[iii] In phase one, swift intervention is required to halt the spread of the virus. The goal is to bring R down from above 1 to below 1. This entails aggressive measures like lockdowns, business and school closures, and restrictions on social gatherings. Without this phase, the exponential spread of the virus can quickly overwhelm countries’ medical infrastructure and result in devastating effects. In phase two, moderate measures are taken to manage the spread of the remaining virus. The goal is then to keep R below 1. Remaining and new cases are easily managed, and ultimately the virus dies out. If this phase is not executed properly and R rises above 1, it is necessary to start over at phase one.

The Problem of Mobility[iv]

To keep R below 1, maintaining open borders becomes problematic. A continued influx of travelers, a portion of whom may be carriers of the virus, risks infecting the local population—regardless of the measures already being used to contain the virus within borders. Every day that a new incoming traveler potentially carrying the virus enters the community, the clock resets to zero. All individuals (or surfaces) that the traveler comes into contact with will need another 14 (or 3 for surfaces) days before this particular virus is no longer a threat to life. This scenario undercuts all of the measures applied in both phases. Even if they arrive after months of painstaking lockdowns, travelers can force the community to start the suppression process all over again.

The border problem is even more complicated in Europe because the community exists on two levels: supranational (EU) and national (Member States). If the EU attempts to restrict all travel entering the Schengen Zone, it needs all Member States to comply or it risks compromising the integrity of the entire Schengen Zone. It takes only one unsecured point of entry—one noncompliant Member State—to ruin the efforts of the entire European community. Similarly, despite a closed external border, the Schengen Zone could still be compromised if virus-carrying travelers pass between its internal borders and infect the community of another Member State.

The Problem of Restricting Mobility

In theory, the simplest solution would be to close all internal and external borders during both phases. But restricting mobility creates numerous problems, starting with human rights. Closing borders infringes upon freedom of movement and the right to asylum, enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, millions of workers in Europe cross borders every day in order to travel between their residence and workstation; closing borders restricts their right to work, also enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Closing borders also substantially weakens the economy. Closed borders have decimated the number of travelers in Europe, forcing thousands of layoffs and business closures in the European airline and tourism industries. Europe’s airline industries are as of now set to lose $113 billion this year.[v] Millions of EU citizens’ livelihoods depend on the movement of people across borders.

Perhaps the greatest problem of closing borders is the risk of deteriorating solidarity within the EU. As Member States close their shared borders, they increasingly resort to domestic solutions. Many Member States have already hoarded medical supplies and refused to share resources with other Member States in greater need.[vi] Hard national boundaries reinforce the separation between the healthy and the sick, between insiders and outsiders.[vii] Fragmented into disparate national policy approaches, the EU risks undoing decades of integration and cementing new political divisions.

The Open-border Remedy

A solution that both maintains open borders and prevents the virus from spreading across them exists: as long as incoming travelers are confirmed to not be carrying the virus, open borders will not cause R to rise. This requires efficient border-control procedures for all incoming travelers at every point of entry. In practice, this means mandatory, free testing with rapid results. It also means forced quarantines until results are available. Those who test negative may enter, following all other precautionary measures, while those who test positive must quarantine for at least 14 days without showing any new symptoms. Once approved vaccines are developed, travelers can bypass these measures by showing proof of vaccination.

To properly implement these border-control procedures, the EU must place them at both the Schengen Zone’s internal and external borders and marshal sufficient resources. This means developing, approving, and manufacturing testing kits alongside the necessary infrastructure to process and communicate results. It means constructing the appropriate quarantine facilities and gathering all necessary equipment to treat patients. With greater coordination between the Commission’s COVID-19 advisory panel and Member States’ respective pandemic advisory committees, the EU can successfully organize the necessary amount of funds, equitably distribute these resources, and mobilize both the public and private sector in support.

Race Against Time

The EU cannot delay adopting this solution. While waiting for sufficient resources to be collected, it would be safer to close all borders during phase one, since open borders undercut all suppression measures and allow the virus to spread. But once the resources are available, the EU need not wait for phase one to end. South Korea serves as a prime example, having successfully reached phase two without ever closing its borders, despite a lower GDP per capita than the EU.[viii]

There is no alternative solution. Without these border-control procedures, the EU will not be able to safely re-open its borders until every future incoming traveler is immune, which could take years. Meanwhile, with each passing day, closed borders exacerbate the human rights, economic, and solidarity issues crippling the EU. Worse, internal borders that remain open allow the virus to spread within the EU. The status quo is unsustainable, and time is running out.


Picture by Clément Falize on unsplash

[i] “Situation update for the EU/EEA and the UK, as of 19 April 2020,” European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, accessed April 19, 2020,  https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/cases-2019-ncov-eueea.

[ii] “Commission backs prolonging external border closure until mid-May,” Euractiv, April 9, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/eu-executive-backs-prolonging-external-border-closure-until-mid-may/

[iii] Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance,” Medium, March 19, 2020, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-the-hammer-and-the-dance-be9337092b56

[iv] “Mobility” here refers to specifically human mobility, since the EU and Member States have already stated that essential goods, notably medical supplies, would still be free to move across closed borders.

[v] Laurence Forst, “Coronavirus to drive European airline industry shakeout,” Reuters, March 9, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-europe-airlines-an/coronavirus-to-drive-european-airline-industry-shakeout-idUSKBN20W1Z4

[vi] Elisabeth Braw, “The EU Is Abandoning Italy in Its Hour of Need,” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-eu-abandoning-italy-china-aid/

[vii] Darren McCaffrey, “Strong EU measures against coronavirus are needed, but threaten European solidarity,” Euronews, March 18, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/18/strong-eu-measures-against-coronavirus-are-needed-but-threaten-european-solidarity

[viii] “Coronavirus: South Korea tightens border checks as domestic transmission abates,” The Straits Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/skorea-reports-84-new-coronavirus-cases-total-at-8320

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Arthur is a dual-master’s degree candidate at Sciences Po (Paris) and Peking University (Beijing), where he is studying human rights and international relations. He holds a BA in philosophy and international affairs from George Washington University (Washington, DC).