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German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AP)

Europe’s borders creak open with Germany ending controls

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government aims to return to normal operations at its land boundaries by June 15
  • An agreement with France, Austria and Switzerland has been reached to roll back restrictions completely by June 15

Germany will reopen borders that slammed shut to stop the spread of the coronavirus, a critical step in re-establishing the free flow of people and countering the threat the pandemic poses to European integration.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government aims to return to normal operations at its land boundaries by June 15, as long as the spread of the disease remains under control, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Wednesday. While air travel will remain restricted for now, crossings with Luxembourg will already be lifted on Saturday, and similar unrestricted passage could soon be revived with Denmark, he said.

“We’re taking this step due to our clear goal of restoring free movement in Europe from the middle of June," Seehofer said at a news conference in Berlin. “That requires that the infection trend remains as favorable as it has been in recent days."

Germany’s huge economy and its position at the heart of Europe -- with nations including Poland and the Czech Republic to the east and France and Netherlands to the west -- gives the country a crucial role in reviving travel in the region.

An agreement with France, Austria and Switzerland has been reached to roll back restrictions completely by June 15, and Germany will discuss procedures with Poland and the Czech Republic to ease passage. Poland extended its controls with other EU countries until June 12.

The controls ban most travel and require long quarantines for those who are allowed to enter, effectively ending free travel within the European Union. The ability to cross borders without any checks has long been one of the most visible features of the 27-nation bloc and a cornerstone of its unity.

Lifting the restrictions is the most important step to restart economies, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an interview this week. The Austrian border with Switzerland will also reopen June 15, and deals with Austria’s eastern neighbors are expected soon. But Kurz said there was “no basis" yet to think about opening the Italian border or to lift travel restrictions with France or Spain, because new infections are still too high there.

Switzerland isn’t yet reopening its border to Italy, and Merkel also urged caution.

“It would be depressing if we had to go back to the restrictions we want to leave behind because we want too much too quickly," she said. “So let’s be brave and watchful."

The measures have dealt a huge blow to the bloc’s tourism industry, a key part of the economy. TUI AG, the world’s biggest package-holiday company, said on Wednesday it will eliminate as many as 8,000 jobs to cut costs and slim down its business as people travel less.

To lay the groundwork for more travel in the region, the European Commission is issuing non-binding recommendations on border openings on Wednesday.

Europe will “definitely" have a summer tourist season even though it will be with safety measures and limitations, EU Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung in an interview published Tuesday.

Germany’s opening target of June 15 coincides with the end of the country’s global travel warning. Until at least that time, people from outside the EU will still face significant hurdles to enter.

“It will definitely be possible to lift the travel warning for Europe earlier than for other countries, as long as the current positive trend in many nations continues," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in an emailed statement.


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