European countries from the Baltic states to the UK and Ireland are proposing regional ‘travel bubbles’ as a temporary solution to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
– Travel bubbles and border controls risk becoming a permanent solution to the crisis in the absence of a coordinated response from Brussels
– There is the risk of long-term damage to the Schengen Area’s borderless travel — its core ideal
– Increased regionalism could pit member states against one another in an effort to safeguard their economies
– The European Commission prefers a united approach and has proposed a major recovery fund that requires the approval of all member states
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed new fissures in the EU, namely in the form of regional travel bubbles that would closely link states and regions less affected by the virus. The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — opened a travel bubble that allows their citizens to move freely between all three countries in the hopes of jumpstarting their economies. Similar proposals are likely to take hold in Central and Eastern Europe, connecting states such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania. As the EU searches for a common solution to the pandemic, regional approaches are quickly materialising as the default position for a large number of member states.
COVID-19 INCREASES DIVISIONS
The Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, and the broader region of Central and Eastern Europe have had far fewer fatalities from COVID-19 compared to France, Italy, Spain and the UK. Early lockdowns aided by autocratic rule in the case of Poland and Hungary helped to lessen the fallout from the outbreak. However, economic activity is expected to shrink by 4.3% across the Baltic states and Central Europe, and more recent forecasts expect the broader EU economy to contract by 8.7% before somewhat recovering in 2021. These historical bad figures provide member states with a compelling motive to reconnect with their trading partners. Moreover, governments that can jumpstart their economies are more likely be rewarded (or at least, less punished) by voters who feel their representatives are securing for their economic interests.
The UK is also looking to develop a travel bubble with the Republic of Ireland, principally to maintain tourism and economic links during the summer months, with an exemption being proposed to the UK’s 14-day quarantine period for Irish travellers. Given the UK’s high case count and death rate from COVID-19, travellers from the UK who venture further across the Channel will be subject to France’s voluntary quarantine measures, which will also affect Spanish travellers; Spain is just emerging from a lengthy lockdown. Europe’s two leading economies, France and Germany, are working towards a coordinated reopening on June 15, although some restrictions will likely remain in place.
A Northern Europe or Nordic travel bubble that covers the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Finland, and Denmark is also likely — Sweden may be excluded due to its controversial relaxed lockdown approach that has yet to establish herd immunity. As Europe enters the summer months, it is likely that travellers, businesses, and nationals from some EU member states will be subject to more scrutiny than others, including rolling border checks and enhanced screenings at ports of entry. Until a vaccine is found and distributed, this response risks becoming a permanent solution for EU member states in the absence of a coordinated approach to border controls and temporary restrictions on freedom of movement.
SCHENGEN AND EUROPEAN BORDERS IN 2020 AND BEYOND
The free movement of people, goods, and services is a critical pillar of the EU, as the borderless travel area known as the Schengen Zone is a key facilitator of this movement. The Schengen Zone comprises 26 countries, of which 22 are EU member states. The imposition of border controls by Schengen members is rare but has occurred in response to the 2015–2016 migrant crisis and the series of ISIS-inspired or directed terror attacks. France has maintained internal and external border controls for varying durations since 2016, most recently citing ‘the risk of terrorists using the vulnerability of states due to COVID-19’ in a control measure that will last until October 31.
The Schengen Area has gone through many iterations and has been severely tested in recent years, particularly by Central and Eastern European member states as well as populist, anti-migrant leaders in France and Italy. As the pandemic progresses, there is the risk that the ideals of unity and interconnectivity underpin the Schengen Area and help buffer it from assault will weaken. Absent a coordinated response from Brussels, increased regionalism and nationalism that pits member states against one another in an effort to wall themselves off from further threats to their economies and livelihoods will test the limits of Schengen and raise serious doubts as to whether it can remain a permanently borderless area.
The Baltic states are full democracies and proud EU members that are likely to remain engaged with Brussels and work for a common response despite the formation of a travel bubble. In contrast, members of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) are already at odds with Brussels on judicial reform, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts, and are less likely to work with Brussels to find a solution that all members can agree upon. However, the Visegrad Group has a critical interest in ensuring that imported COVID-19 cases do not adversely affect the progress they have made thus far towards containing the virus, and so they may be willing to cooperate.
For the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for a common EU-wide approach to combat the health and economic crises. The Commission has proposed a €750 billion recovery fund in the form of loans and grants to all 27 member states, which will require unanimous approval to go ahead. The battle to approve EU-wide recovery measures will likely face hurdles due to the disproportionate loss of life across member states in addition to pre-existing economic conditions and divergent views on government welfare policies that have long pitted northern member states against southern ones. Spain and Italy already have large public debts, stemming in part from the 2008 financial crisis, and have been among the hardest hit by the virus and associated economic collapse. The recovery from COVID-19 will likely reaffirm the division in the EU between the wealthier, less indebted north and the austerity-laden south on matters of fiscal responsibility.
In a similar vein to the 2008 financial crisis, the economic realities in Spain and Italy will likely have a significant impact on the next wave of political leaders and populist parties looking to gain momentum in a time of crisis. In contrast to the top-down belief in supranationalism from the Commission, some member states have embraced the notion of travel bubbles as a vital way to ensure economic wellbeing at a regional and local level. Given the expected variations in economic recovery rates between members, the recovery fund will likely need to take into account regional travel dynamics that have been put in place before any EU-wide proposal is considered.
The success or failure of the various travel bubbles will likely be a key factor in further establishing an equitable recovery fund that will allow member states of varying debt levels to have confidence in the economic policies from Brussels. Travel bubbles may provide a short-term sense of relief and economic wellbeing for many EU member states, but the greatest risk to long-term fragmentation and regionalism within the EU will likely lead to attempts to modify Schengen and reimpose border controls without EU-wide consultation. Schengen has withstood events like this in the past, but the current acceptability of travel bubbles is likely to fuel claims from some governments that border control is a right that belongs to the state and not the EU.