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Can Belgium unilaterally decide to close its borders?

Credit: Belga

As the number of experts in favour of closing Belgium’s border grows, many people are wondering if the government can take such a measure on its own.

As travellers could import more infectious variants of the coronavirus, biostatistician Geert Molenberghs became the third expert, following the VUB health faculty dean Dirk Devroey, and epidemiologist Pierre Van Damme, to come out in favour of closing the borders on Wednesday morning.

However, as Belgium is a member of the European Union, it is technically not allowed to decide to close its borders on its own, according to Professor of European Politics Hendrik Vos.

“However, we did that during the first wave, so it is possible. Countries are masters of their borders,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws.

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“It is actually not allowed because of the free movement of people and goods in the EU, but there is no real European police force to intervene if you do it,” Vos said. “In the worst-case scenario, you will be reprimanded by Europe afterwards.”

In principle, temporarily suspending the principle of free movement of people is possible, but then a number of steps have to be followed and the Commission has to be notified.

In contrast to the first wave, so far, no European country has closed its borders yet.

Closing Belgium’s borders is easier said than done, as it “lies at a crossroads in Europe,” Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said on Flemish radio.

“People move across borders to go to an essential shop or to see a doctor. For those journeys, it seems far-fetched to ask people for tests or to quarantine them each time,” she said.

“In the European context, we have agreed not to do this unilaterally,” Verlinden said. “We will have to look into this, but it is not the preferred route.”

According to Vos, due to the central position of the country, a border closure immediately comes with a whole series of exceptions, such as for freight traffic, people living in border regions.

Additionally, the authorities continue to “strictly discourage” travel abroad and do not seem in favour of such a closure. “If it is really necessary, we will have to look at it in a European context. We certainly have to keep thinking about it,” Verlinden said.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times