Europe to shut borders as lengthy virus crisis looms

Controls at the Spanish-French border in La Jonquera
A border police officer checks vehicles at the last toll gate entering Spain from France, following an order from the Spanish government to set up controls at its land borders over coronavirus, in La Jonquera, Spain March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

European Union leaders meeting via videoconference on Tuesday are likely to seal off Europe’s external borders and stress a “whatever it takes” approach to easing the economic fallout as the continent braces for a long coronavirus crisis.

France was going into lockdown on Tuesday to contain the spread of the disease as the death toll in Italy jumped above 2,000.

The EU has scrambled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing borders checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, limiting exports of medical equipment or failing to share key information swiftly.

The executive European Commission warned member states that this was just the beginning of the crisis and Germany said it would take “months rather than weeks”, diplomats said after talks on Monday evening to prepare for Tuesday’s call.

Three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – criticised Poland for blocking their citizens in transit from returning home.

The chairman of EU leaders, Charles Michel, said he called Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to demand “policy coherence” after The Hague was seen to be resisting a broader closure of schools, businesses and other public venues.

Pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron, the Commission proposed closing Europe’s external borders to foreigners.

The leaders will also discuss repatriating Europeans stranded abroad as airlines cut flights. For example, Denmark has around 1,000 citizens in Morocco currently, EU sources said.

EU leaders will also stress their “whatever it takes” approach to cushioning the economic fallout of the pandemic, including by relaxing limitations on state aid.

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