Europe shyly opens external borders

Citizens of the US, Russia and Turkey are still not allowed to enter

Europe started on 1 July shyly to open its external borders, with citizens of just 15 countries initially allowed to enter, news wires reported. The difficult agreement was reached on the last possible day, 30 June, after heated debates for more than a week Citizens of the US, Russia and Turkey will not be allowed in for the time being as these countries are still considered a risk due to the high number of Covid-19 cases.

"The Council adopted a recommendation on the gradual lifting of the temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU. Travel restrictions should be lifted for countries listed in the recommendation, with this list being reviewed and, as the case may be, updated every two weeks," a statement from European Council reads. European Council President Charles Michel said that the EU will continue to monitor the situation regularly. "We have to remain vigilant and keep our most vulnerable safe," he wrote on Twitter.

The safe countries list includes: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay, as well as provisionally China, but only on condition of reciprocity. Brazil and India are together with the US and Russia on the non-safe list, while the UK is not affected by the travel restrictions as British citizens have until the end of the year the same rights as those of the EU.

Countries like France and Germany have along with the Commission stressed the need for a "common and coordinated approach". The Commission has also made it clear the continued restrictions after 1 July wouldn't apply to EU nationals, those from Schengen area countries (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland) or non-EU nationals and family members who have their main residence in Europe "regardless of whether or not they are returning home".

According to the Council's statement, "for countries where travel restrictions continue to apply, the following categories of people should be exempted from the restrictions: EU citizens and their family members; long-term EU residents and their family members; and travellers with an essential function or need.” The list needed a “qualified majority” of EU countries to be passed, meaning 15 EU countries representing 65% of the population had to agree to it.

However the final decision which country citizens will be allowed to enter and which will not ultimately rests with Member States. Although agreed at a political level, the list is not legally binding. Border control remains a national competence and not something that is decided at EU level.  “A Member State should not decide to lift the travel restrictions for non-listed third countries before this has been decided in a coordinated manner," the EU states.

Americans planning to travel to Europe will be hugely disappointed, but the EU has decided the resurgence of the virus across the Atlantic, plus the huge number of cases and deaths meant the risk was still too high. The US has seen over 2.5 million cases and suffered over 125,000 deaths, roughly a quarter of the global total. In recent days there has been a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in many states across the country. In 2016, some 12 million Americans travelled to Europe with Italy, France, Germany and Spain among the most popular destinations.

Countries were included on the safe list if the coronavirus outbreak in the country was judged to be the same or better than that EU average. The bar was fixed at 16 cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks. The EU and Schengen area countries (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) lifted partially border controls for EU citizens travelling inside the bloc on 15 June.

Within hours of the EU announcement, Italy, which has one of the highest Covid death tolls in the world, said it would opt out and keep quarantine restrictions in place. “The global situation remains very complex. We must prevent the sacrifices made by the Italians in recent months have been in vain,” Italy Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.

There are widespread concerns that reopening external borders now would "spark a new chain of contagion. For this reason, Italy is keeping the mandatory quarantine rule for all those arriving from a non-EU nation, even if they have passed through another internal Schengen country," Italian newspaper La Repubblica wrote. Italy has allowed free movement to and from EU and Schengen zone countries, including the UK, since 3 June. This will not change, Speranza confirmed. But travel from outside this area will remain so far restricted.

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