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The European Union’s executive criticised Belgium on Monday for extending its blanket ban on non-essential travel to and from the country despite the European Commission asking it to ease restrictions on movement. Highlighting how the bloc’s 27 countries struggle to stick to a unified line in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany has equally ignored a call from the Commission in late February to roll back its latest curbs on travel and borders.
In laying out plans for gradually restarting more social and public activities from May, Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said last Friday that Belgium’s ban on foreign travel would be extended by more than two weeks to Apr. 18.
A spokesman for the Commission said they were “surprised” by the decision.
They said: “We were rather surprised by the Belgian authorities’ announcement.
“We have asked Belgium to replace that with more targeted measures.”
The spokesman referred to strict testing and quarantine requirements to discourage – but not ban – foreign trips.
The Commission has said excessive limitations imposed recently to contain the spread of new variants of the coronavirus hurt the flow of goods, services and people in the bloc’s cherished single market, already going through a record recession triggered by the pandemic.
Mr de Croo’s move comes despite the Commission told six countries, including Belgium, to ease travel and border restrictions last month, as unilateral moves to combat the spread of new coronavirus variants had hit the flow of goods.
The Commission gave Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden 10 days to justify the restrictions, which Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said had “gone too far”.
Reynders said the 27 EU countries should adopt a coordinated approach to all measures taken in relation to the free movement of people and goods.
A European Commission spokesman said the bloc risked “fragmentation and disruptions to free movement and to supply chains – something we have witnessed again the past weeks”.
The Brussels-based executive said quarantine was effective in discouraging leisure travel and transport workers should be exempted from quarantine or testing.
French President Emmanuel Macron says internal borders between EU countries should remain open, and clashed with Germany last year after Berlin closed frontiers during the first wave of the pandemic.
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Earlier this month, Berlin’s EU ambassador also dismissed the Commission complaints over the measures introduced to stop the spread of mutant coronavirus strains.
Michael Clauss said the tough border restrictions with Austria, France and the Czech Republic would continue as long as they’re needed.
The closures have “become particularly necessary when less protective measures are taken in affected neighbouring regions with extremely high incidence rates,” he wrote to Commission director-general for justice Salla Saastamoinen.
Mr Clauss added: “At present, in the interest of protecting health, we must adhere to the measures taken at internal borders.”
Germany sparked fury in Brussels when it announced border closures with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region last month.
Similar measures have also been introduced on the country’s frontier with France’s eastern Moselle region.
Under the new rules, only Germans or non-German residents are allowed through the borders.
There are exceptions for key workers, in sectors such as health and haulage.
Everyone must provide a recent negative coronavirus test before being allowed to enter the country.
Mr Clauss insisted the bloc’s recommendations are “good minimum standards” but deviations from the rules are necessary to protect health.
“This already follows from the wording and is also in the nature of a recommendation,” he added.