EU leaders agreed to seal the external borders of the bloc to non-EU residents travelling for non-essential reasons, in an effort to provide a concerted response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Calls from the EU Commission received “broad support” from member states, which will now be tasked with implementing the checks on their external borders, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a press briefing.
Member states said they would “immediately” move to implement the border measures, von der Leyen added, underscoring the need for a “unanimous and united” approach to fight the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19).
The ban will be put in place for a period of 30 days, which can be extended if necessary and aims to ensure that health services in member countries are not overwhelmed, in the image of hospitals of Italy and Spain.
EU citizens and their families and long-term EU residents returning home from outside the EU are exempted from the ban, as well as diplomats and health workers and researchers.
The ban will also aim to push member states who imposed restrictions with bordering EU countries to lift them, something which von der Leyen said was “absolutely crucial” for EU citizens looking to return to their home countries.
The lifting of the internal borders will also ensure that cross-border commuters can continue to move freely across the bloc, with von der Leyen noting that they were vital for some countries, like Luxembourg, where a majority of health workers commute into the country.
The border restrictions will apply to all the countries in the Schengen Zone as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, according to the “broadly welcomed” guidelines published by the Commission ahead of Tuesday’s talks.
The external border restrictions are part of wider efforts by the EU’s top institutions to provide a coordinated answer to the outbreak, and come after the World Health Organisation urged European leaders to be bolder in their response to the outbreak.
Leaders on Tuesday also approved the creation of so-called green or fast-track lanes on motorways, which would aim to ensure the transport of medical equipment and other goods and commuting remains unhampered.
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès on Tuesday said that Belgium supported the external border measures and said that it will not seal its borders with other EU countries, but prohibit all non-essential travel abroad until 5 April.
France and Germany both announced they would be implementing the border shutdown ahead of its official endorsement on Tuesday, with mechanisms for its implementation now in the hands of each member state.