The closing of national borders within the EU is a reflex and not the most effective instrument for health protection
Yesterday I was in Maastricht at the Belgian border which is no more than 1 km behind my house. I wanted to see it with my own eyes: the border was closed. The Belgian government has put up barriers to prevent us from entering their country. For five years we at ITEM have been working to reduce the existing legal and fiscal problems in our cross-border Euregion. And now the border is closed. The road is closed. This is of course the opposite of successful Euregional integration.
Why did this happen? One could of course say because of health protection. Because closing the border helps to reduce the number of infections. That is probably only half true. From today's point of view, one should probably have prevented entry into the EU at an earlier stage. Or when the first cases appeared, individual hotspots in the EU should have been closed off more quickly, as was attempted too late in Italy’s northern region. The European hotspots had little to do with national borders. The German Landkreis Heinsberg was perhaps essential for the infections in the Dutch town Sittard on the other side of the border, but even more for the rest of the North Rhine-Westphalia (the German state where Heinsberg is located).
Closing of borders an expression of national helplessness
However even today nobody in Germany comes up with the idea to close the border between North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. Or to close the state of Bavaria, where the first German cases appeared. That would have made more sense than closing national borders, because it would have isolated hotspots. However, closing of the border between Germany and Belgium and Belgium and the Netherlands is the only viable option right now. It is an expression of national helplessness because other coordination instruments are not available.
Health systems focus too much on national capacities
It was for instance apparently not possible to coordinate the procurement of testing material and exchange supply in order to test as many persons as possible in the most affected regions. It did not seem possible to organise early assistance for northern Italy from other Member States. The question therefore arises as to whether health systems that are completely national in scope can meet the challenge of a cross-border crisis.
ITEM will analyse in a later stage to what extent the EU was taking action in the area of procurement of materials and respiratory equipment, or with respect to the coordination of hospital capacity. The European Commission according to its recent corona related “Q&A” has launched an accelerated joint procurement procedure with 26 Member States. According to this, the Commission is buying equipment based on the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (rescEU). This could lead to first purchases by beginning of April, if approved by Member States. Nevertheless, since this action comes rather late, the overall assumption is that measures at the EU level were prevented because of a lack of competence. And this is not surprising: according to the health article in the treaty (article 168 TEU) the Union can only support the Member states. However, cooperation is entirely dependent on their willingness.
Another assumption is that even well integrated neighbouring countries with cross-border governance systems, such as the Scandinavian countries (Nordic Council), seem to have little coordination possibilities in this case. For example, Denmark has closed the border with its neighbour Sweden out of concern for its own health care system. What the Benelux as an organisation was able to contribute during the crisis will be also a research topic for the future. The same goes for the role of the Euregions and the normally well-functioning networks of hospitals and emergency services such as EMRIC in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine.
Lack of coordination of national measures
So why is the border between the Netherlands and Belgium currently closed to everyone without “essential” reasons? Not so much because of the number of corona cases on both sides of the border. It is because of the lack of coordination of national measures. When the shops closed in Belgium, the Dutch stores were still open. So the Belgians came to Maastricht (NL) to shop. And when much stricter measures were already in force in Belgium, the Dutch tourists apparently pretended that this did not concern them. Was that predictable? Actually, it was. For many people, the Euregion is part of their normal daily life, where normally borders are hardly noticed. If drastic, unilateral measures are taken so quickly that information can hardly reach the people, it causes problems. Meanwhile the government in North Rhine-Westphalia has announced the creation of a cross-border task force with the Netherlands and Belgium. That is promising.
The example of Austria showed how limited the closing of national borders has been so far. The government had closed the border with Italy at an early stage, and thus also with South Tyrol (also part of a lively Euregion). However, in the two ski resorts in the Austrian Tyrol, which probably contributed massively to the spread of the virus, the lifts were shut down far too late. And the access from the rest of Austria and to Bavaria was for a long time not restricted.
The same pattern of lack of cross-border coordination was evident throughout Europe. When one border after the other was closed, neighbouring countries had hardly coordinated the measures. It was rather a case of every man for himself. Just a few days ago there were more than 50 kilometres of truck traffic jams at the Polish border and chaotic conditions for drivers. Until today (25.3.2020) the German-Dutch border is apparently the only one in the EU where no controls are carried out. Many borders are completely closed: even for border commuters, for example those who want to travel from Germany to work in the Czech Republic.
Finally, there is good news in terms of solidarity: Italian patients are being treated in Saxony and French patients from Alsace in Baden-Württemberg. It will also be interesting to understand how this has been made possible. Every year we present our ITEM Cross-border impact assessment. This year we will investigate these kind of questions: the impact of the Corona crisis on life in the border regions and the effects of cross-border coordination, or non-alignment, of crisis response. We will publish the results of the report in November of this year.
ITEM monitors the current impact of the Corona crisis on the border regions. Go to our Cross-border portal if you want to stay informed.
By Martin Unfried, researcher at Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility / ITEM