The Twenty-seven harmonize the rules to close borders and limit mobility in order to save Schengen
With a second wave already underway hitting the four corners of the continent, the European Union aims to end the border mess that was the protagonist in the first attacks of the pandemic last spring. To ensure that Europeans can exercise their right to move freely throughout the territory, the Twenty-seven will establish common scientific criteria and harmonize response actions to the health emergency. A strong idea beats behind the proposal, to which this newspaper has had access: restrictions on people’s movements should be the last resort. All to save Schengen, the space of free movement, badly injured after months of the coronavirus crisis.
The measures will be taken based on the colors of a kind of European traffic light that measures the progress of the pandemic: at that traffic light, today, Spain would be a vast territory in red, with all the autonomous communities, except Asturias, in addition to Ceuta and Melilla, wrapped in red tones.
The proposals, detailed in a text to be voted on by the EU Council of Ministers presumably next week, seek to harmonize epidemiological criteria and rules to restrict travel among the Twenty-seven. It is about avoiding the confusing moments lived up to now, in which countries have been limiting movements based on their own criteria, and doing so overnight, without prior notification. In July, for example, Belgium even prohibited its citizens from traveling to certain areas of Spain that, according to their particular national criteria, were “in the red”. And in September, without prior notice, Hungary decided to lock its borders on the rest of the European countries.
The current proposal aims to avoid this lack of coordination. It asks the governments to give sufficient notice to the European Commission and the countries concerned of the measures that are taken. And it establishes any decision on objective and supranational numbers, thresholds and criteria: agreed at the European level.
Specifically, the document calls on States to provide the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) with weekly information, both nationally and disaggregated at the regional level, on three key indicators: the rate accumulated at 14 days of infections per 100,000 inhabitants; the positivity rate of the tests (the percentage of cases detected among all the tests performed); and the test rate (the number of tests carried out per 100,000 inhabitants in the last week).
Using these indicators, the ECDC will need to update a three-color epidemiological map – green, orange and red – every week, based on which the different countries can choose to take action.
The disc would be green when the cumulative incidence is less than 25 per 100,000 inhabitants and the positivity of the tests is less than 4%; it would go amber if the accumulated rate at 14 days exceeds 50 per 100,000 inhabitants and the positivity rate is above 4% or if it is below 4%, but the accumulated rate of new cases is between 25 and 150 for every 100,000 inhabitants; finally, a region would turn red when the accumulated rate is above 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants and the positivity of the tests exceeds 4% and, in any case, provided that the 150 accumulated notifications are exceeded for each 100,000 inhabitants.
As a general principle, “Member States should not refuse entry of people coming from another Member State,” the proposal states, almost like a kind of Schengen safeguard clause. And in no case should restrictive measures be taken against areas colored green by the ECDC. When the subregions change to orange or red, movements may be limited, an exclusive competence of the countries whose content the text does not delve into.
To try to avoid future locks and a possible chaos in the coming months, when the cold arrives and the flu season could coincide with the rise of infected, the proposal suggests alternatives, such as quarantines or covid-19 tests on arrival or even those made in the place of origin, before leaving. For this, the text claims that the Twenty-seven “should mutually recognize the results of the covid-19 tests carried out in other member states.” And it also proposes to harmonize a “passenger location form” for the entire EU, so that the same is required everywhere, something like the European health card.
The proposal, once approved by the Ministers of the Twenty-seven, would have the category of recommendation, a figure that does not legally bind countries but does represent a guide to behavior and marks the way forward. And being a text approved by governments, it binds them.
Following the epidemiological criteria of the document, a handful of EU countries, in addition to Spain (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg), all of them with accumulated rates of more than 150 infected per 100,000 inhabitants, according to updated data ECDC, they would now automatically turn red. However, the idea of the text implies transcending the state level and not closing the borders of the countries as a whole, but going down in detail to smaller territorial areas, “to ensure that the measures [restrictivas] target the regions where it is strictly necessary ”. Another way to safeguard the space of free movement of people.
Mark Van Ranst, one of the most reputed and media virologists in Belgium, from the KU Leuven University, picks up the phone from the train and on the other side of the line greets the European Union proposal, because until now, he says, each country it has had to go “hunting data” to make decisions. He believes that it is a good idea to have official numbers disaggregated by area: “It does not help to have only information on Spain as a whole, you need it on the different regions. And that’s the tricky thing ”. The idea, he explains, is that the new color map that the ECDC will have to draw up is “even more detailed” than what this agency based in Stockholm (Sweden) is currently drawing up.