Schengen proves hard to reboot after system meltdown

The zone is now a tangle of unilateral border closures, bilateral tourism agreements and free movement bubbles.

Schengen proves hard to reboot after system meltdown

Forget Schengen. Welcome back to the 1980s.

The European free-travel area, made up of 22 EU countries plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, suffered a near-death experience when the majority of member countries reinstated border checks in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s allowed under Schengen rules if countries come under a “serious threat to public policy or internal security,” but there’s no indication of how to bring it back to life. That’s what the Commission is seeking to address in a package to be adopted on Wednesday, issuing guidelines to EU countries on how to lift internal borders and travel restrictions.

It’s a deeply sensitive issue for countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, which are relying on a revival of tourism to help save their economies.

“It’s like traveling in a time machine to a dark and distant past. We now need to get back to the future. Back to normality, and we need to do so as soon as the health situation allows it,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told the Parliament last week.

For now, the travel area is a tangle of unilateral border closures, bilateral tourism agreements and free movement bubbles.

The Commission will present a two-step approach, according to a draft communication seen by POLITICO. First, countries with a comparable epidemiological situation as assessed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control should lift travel restrictions between themselves provided they still respect social distancing. This would, for example, appear to cause problems for Greece bringing in British tourists, because the coronavirus has been far more severe in the U.K.

Only in a second phase would travel be restored throughout the whole Schengen area and beyond.

For now, the travel area is a tangle of unilateral border closures, bilateral tourism agreements and free-movement bubbles.

“There is a lot of fragmentation in the single market on the free movement of persons and goods,” said Petra De Sutter, chair of the internal market committee of the European Parliament. Restoring a functioning Schengen won’t be easy because “We’re really on the edge of the tension between competence of the EU and member states.”

Travel bubbles

Some countries are creating free-movement clusters. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia last week agreed to lift travel restrictions and the obligation to undergo two weeks of quarantine on their citizens as of this Friday. People returning from other countries will still be required to self-isolate.

“We agreed that all three Baltic countries have adequately curbed the spread of the coronavirus. We also trust each other’s health care systems,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis explained the decision on Facebook.

The Baltic bubble could expand as the countries look to add Poland and Finland to their free-travel zone.

France and the U.K. have agreed to allow travelers from France a quarantine-free trip across the Channel, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron said in a joint statement Sunday. However, this wasn’t confirmed by the U.K.’s exit strategy published Monday.

The European Commission expects the U.K. “would apply the same kind of exemptions to arrivals from other member states which are in a similar epidemiological situation as France,” a Commission spokesperson said Tuesday, as it would be unlawful under EU law to discriminate on the basis of nationality. It would however be possible to discriminate based on residence, if that’s based on an epidemiological assessment.

On the Continent, Belgium’s restrictions on “non-essential” cross-border travel have become an irritant. The Benelux parliament, made up of designated lawmakers from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, is working on proposals to “offer the population a perspective of the opening of borders between the three countries,” it said last week.

Belgian Minister of Interior Affairs and Foreign Trade Pieter De Crem | Thierry Roge/AFP via Getty Images

Belgian Interior Minister Pieter De Crem keeps in touch with his counterparts from neighboring countries about the borders, a spokesperson confirmed, but it’s not clear when free movement will be possible again. “This depends on many factors, including the spread of the virus and the way it’s tackled,” he said.

Immunity passport, air corridors and ‘smart solutions’

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said back in April that Europeans will find “smart solutions” to go on holiday this year, and EU governments followed suit with a plethora of announcements.

Greece is working on the idea of allowing in tourists who would take a test before travel. “They can only get on the plane with a negative test, or with a positive antibody test,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN last week.

However there is no scientific clarity on the reliability of such tests or indeed on whether contracting the virus leads to immunity, and both the World Health Organization and ECDC are currently advising against such an approach.

Popular tourist destinations are hoping to strike deals with countries they consider at low risk of importing the virus.

Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said on Monday that “the government is working to gradually restart domestic and foreign tourism … freedom of movement is one of the four fundamental freedoms on which the European edifice is based and cannot be ignored.”

Popular tourist destinations are hoping to strike deals with countries they consider at low risk of importing the virus.

Croatian Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli told local media Zagreb was in talks with the Czech Republic on the possibility of creating an air corridor to allow Czechs to holiday in Croatia.

Croatia wants to introduce an EU-wide travel protocol “with mutually harmonized regulations, while at the same time allowing each country to adapt to all this depending on the development of the situation within its borders … which is currently being discussed,” said a spokesperson for the current Croatian presidency of the European Council, adding, “Croatia will discuss bilateral border opening possibilities during this month and in the coming period depending on the interests of individual countries.”

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa | Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger, who in April said Austria would be happy to welcome Germans for holidays, told POLITICO in a statement she feels “reassured in the position Austria has been taking since the past weeks that have enabled us to confidently move towards a gradual and measured opening of our borders.”

Austria has managed to keep the death toll below 700 and “with constant observation of the number of infections — we should gradually come back to open borders,” said Köstinger.

In Portugal, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said national and international tourism should resume from July. But as of now, the border with Spain, where the epidemic has claimed over 26,000 lives, is still closed.

“We’re working on this balance, returning to a possible normality and complying with rules on people’s movements in tourism, be it national or international, and this is looked at very carefully to maintain safety and prevent new infections,” said Graça Freitas, head of Portugal’s Directorate-General of Health, a health ministry agency.

Restoring a full Schengen will be a question of months, not weeks, an EU official said.

The complexity of the situation from a health, legal and political point of view isn’t going to be cleared up any time soon.  “This is a very difficult task. Member states introduced different measures in an uncoordinated manner. Unwinding these different national restrictions will take some time,” Home Affairs Commissioner Johansson said last week.

Restoring a full Schengen will be a question of months, not weeks, an EU official said.

“We still have a lot of political work to do to convince people of the advantages of open borders and a single market that functions fully rather than fragmenting it,” said De Sutter, the MEP.

Florian Eder contributed reporting.

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Boris Johnson turns to polling and ‘common sense’

UK prime minister's coronavirus exit plan reveals much about how team Vote Leave operate in government.

Boris Johnson turns to polling and ‘common sense’

LONDON — Boris Johnson’s new coronavirus plan is a blend — plenty of science, a sprinkling of conservative ideology and more than a dash of Dominic Cummings.

The U.K. government’s slogan has changed from a clear directive to “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert,” with its Tory-friendly emphasis on personal responsibility, for individuals and employers, and “good, solid, British common sense,” as the prime minister put it on Monday.

But look closer and the government’s 50-page “COVID-19 Recovery Strategy” document represents only a limited, cautious lifting of restrictions, with any next steps in June and July contingent on a stringent new epidemic monitoring and alert system.

Caution is an approach recommended by science. It’s also preferred by the people — and Johnson knows it.

Throughout the crisis, government officials said, Downing Street has relentlessly polled every aspect of public opinion regarding the pandemic and the government’s response, with aides receiving near-daily updates on the public mood. Messages and policies have been subject to focus group research, not dissimilar from an election campaign. It’s an approach typical of the former Vote Leave team — led by chief adviser Dominic Cummings — who are at the center of Johnson’s Downing Street.

So far, not only has the U.K. largely embraced the restrictions imposed by the government, but opinion polls have also remained broadly favorable.

The collision of cherished Tory principles and obsessive tracking of public opinion explains as much about Johnson’s team’s approach to governing as it does about the U.K.’s response to the pandemic.

His challenge now, amid increasing criticism, pressure from his own ranks to reopen the economy and a hesitant public, is to keep infection rates down while maintaining the fragile support for his government’s approach. 

Alert, alert!

So far, not only has the U.K. largely embraced the restrictions imposed by the government, but opinion polls have also remained broadly favorable, both for the government and for Johnson, despite a death toll among the highest in the world and a litany of well-aired criticisms about the country’s response.

According to YouGov, approval ratings rose dramatically at the start of the pandemic — attributed to the “rally to the flag” effect observed by pollsters around the world as populations backed their leaders when the crisis hit  — peaking at 52 percent in late March. It has since remained steady; only in the most recent poll — which dates from just before the new strategy — has it dipped slightly, to 44 percent.

The initial launch of the new plan was met with confusion.

Johnson’s decision to speak to a prime-time audience on Sunday night, but not to publish the full policy till Monday afternoon when MPs were sitting, led to nearly 24 hours of ambiguity about some of the key messages.

Things might have worked out better had someone in government not leaked the graphics to the Sunday Telegraph newspaper days in advance of a planned communications campaign launch on Wednesday. The “ALERT” in “Stay Alert,” one official working on the strategy said, was originally intended to be an acronym for five actions people could take to control the spread of the virus — emphasizing the role of personal responsibility. The leak led to a “botched launch” before the messaging was finalized and it remains to be seen whether the acronym will be revived, the official said.

But the phrase itself did not emerge from a vacuum.

“The internal polling is pretty extensive every day,” said the official. “We get an overnight breakdown of surveys of 2,000 adults. We get stats on how worried people are, people’s perceptions of risk, whether they feel they’re being served by government information, whether we’ve got the balance right between the economy and healthcare, polling on people’s finances, thoughts on the NHS, about social distancing, businesses, workplace, face masks.”

Government is tracking, the official added, how many people have heard of the R number which measures the infection rate; whether they know what it means; what proportion of the public want to wear face coverings in shops; whether people are comfortable about relaxing the two-meter social distancing rule, or about sending their children back to school.

| Isabel infantes/AFP via Getty Images

What they’ve found, as public polling also shows, is the British public, traumatized by a death toll now estimated to have exceeded 40,000, are among the most cautious in the world about coronavirus — and might well punish a prime minister that lifts restrictions too fast, allowing the virus to surge back. It’s a threat made more acute by the fact the opposition Labour Party has a proactive and convincing figurehead in the shape of new leader Keir Starmer.

“Naturally a new leader of the opposition comes with new challenges,” said one Downing Street aide.

There are some “libertarians in the party who want us to say that ‘it must be up to any individual to decide their own risk and take part in the economy as they want,'” one influential backbencher and former Cabinet minister said. But “the bulk of the party recognizes the public has been through a very bitter experience and wouldn’t thank us if we relaxed too quickly.”

Common sense

Johnson’s personal approval has also held up, but is beginning to slide ever so slightly. The country was exceptionally united in willing him back to health during his own near-death experience with COVID-19 in April. But he has been fully back at the helm for two weeks now, and increased scrutiny has coincided with a slight dip in approval.

Johnson too, despite his caution, still has libertarian instincts. He spoke, just two months ago, of his discomfort at “taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub.”

There was also disquiet among Tory ranks about the overly statist messages of the first phase of lockdown. “What did go against the grain of the party was the order to ‘Stay at Home’ — and listen to Big Brother,” said the former Cabinet minister.

So it is that the prime minister has insisted that the new strategy will rely on people’s “common sense” — a phrase he used eight times in the House of Commons on Monday — and an element of personal responsibility.

“People have got to get their heads around the fact that the government is no longer going to be able to tell them exactly what to do. They are going to have to have agency and apply common sense.” — Tory backbencher

This has helped ensure that, while modest in its reopening of the economy, the new strategy has not been lambasted by a restless Tory right.

“At the risk of sounding like a pliant backbencher, I think it’s all right,” said another, typically vocal and often critical backbencher. “We are moving from a very directive phase to a more nuanced phase.

“People have got to get their heads around the fact that the government is no longer going to be able to tell them exactly what to do. They are going to have to have agency and apply common sense. It stands to reason we’ve got to trust people.”

Downing Street and their supporters will be hoping it’s an approach that will resonate beyond the Westminster bubble — and will have been gratified by a viral Channel 4 News clip of a plumber praising “Boris” for “leaving it up to us a little bit.”

It’s on you

Making a show of trusting the people has, after all, worked for Dominic “take back control” Cummings before.

“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Tuesday.

In fact, polling by YouGov on Monday suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.

But, as became clear during Johnson’s House of Commons statement later that day, they weren’t dismayed by the strategy itself.

Dominic “take back control” Cummings | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

One element that they particularly welcomed was the “COVID-19 Alert Level,” a one-to-five grading system like the terror threat level which will be determined by scientific input via a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, and will inform how quickly the government reduces social distancing measures.

Johnson, in his speech on Sunday was explicit that it was in the hands of the people to bring the alert level down — a message reinforced by a graphic showing a dial hovering between level 3 and level 4. “As we go, everyone will have a role to play in keeping the R down. By staying alert and following the rules,” Johnson said.

“We’ve shown the public our working, treated them like adults,” the former Cabinet minister said. “People will recognize what’s going on and be able to modify their behavior accordingly.” Or as Cummings might put it: They can “take control.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting for this article 

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