Border controls in Schengen due to coronavirus: what can the EU do?

EU countries are relaxing Covid-induced border controls. Parliament wants a coordinated effort to restore a functioning Schengen zone as soon as possible.

Controls at the Spanish-French border in La Jonquera ©REUTERS/NACHO DOCE/AdobeStock

Free movement in the EU is resuming as restrictions introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus are lifted. The epidemiological situationis improving and with the summer holidays in sight, countries are gradually allowing free travel. MEPs demand that the passport-free Schengen zone returns to its full functioning as soon as posible, especially because the freedom of movement of people, goods and services are needed for the economic recovery after the pandemic.

On 19 June, Parliament adopted a resolution expressing concern about thre remaining border controls. Borders should reopen respecting the principle of non-discrimination, say MEPs.

Schengen in lockdown

“Member States were acting alone and it is now high time the EU steps in before it is too late and irreparable damage to Schengen has been done,” said MEP Tanja Fajon, The chair of the civil liberties committee's working group on Schengen scrutiny. “The Commission should take on a key role in restoring freedom of movement and firstly for crucial categories such as cross-border workers. European coordination is therefore essential.”

According to the current Schengen rules, EU countries can - for a limited period - introduce border checks at their internal borders if there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security. They must notify the European Commission and the Parliament of such closures. The Commission currently keeps an overview of national Covid-19 restriction measures by country.

EU guidance: how to reopen borders

In a package of proposals to enable travelling to resume safely in the EU, the Commission proposed on 13 May to countries that are part of the Schengen zone to gradually reopen their internal borders. The emphasis is on coordination, no discrimination based on nationality and the respect of common health-related criteria based on guidance by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

EU interior ministers confirmed on 5 June that most member states will have lifted the controls at their internal borders and the related travel restrictions by 15 June, with others due to follow by the end of the month. Ministers agreed to continue to coordinate closely under the lead of the Commission. Ahead of the 15 June deadline,  the Commission issued further recommendations on how to lift restrictions with non-EU countries after 1 July 2020.

Find out on what the current travel conditions and safety measures are for each EU country.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Commission has been facilitating common guidelines to make sure that workers in critical sectors as well as deliveries of goods and services in the single market are guaranteed. It also facilitated the repatriations of almost 600,000 Europeans stranded abroad and proposed restricting entry of non-EU nationals into the EU, which now applies until the end of June.

Find out more on what the EU is doing to fight the coronavirus

Check out the timeline of EU action against Covid-19

Parliament’s position

MEPs are pressing for the restoration of borderless free movement for people, goods and services in the Schengen area. They want stronger EU cooperation to guarantee that there is no discrimination against any EU citizen.

In a debate on the state of Schengen by the civil liberties committee on 12 May, Tanja Fajon (S&D, Slovenia) recalled the closures introduced in the midst of the migration crisis in 2015. Some countries maintained those controls for years, which Parliament criticised as unjustified.

“If we fail to restore the integrity of Schengen, we would seriously endanger the European project,” Fajon said. MEPs therefore want to ensure that any future internal borders controls remain truly exceptional and very limited in time.

Read more how Parliament is strengthening the Schengen system and improving border security.

The Schengen zone

  • The Schengen Area consists of 26 countries
  • This includes 22 EU countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Finland and Sweden)
  • As well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein
Schengen zone map indicating current EU and non-EU members, candidate countries and EU country outside the Schengen area
The Schengen zone consists of 26 countries that have agreed to remove regular checks at their internal borders