On 14 February 2021, the Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community of Germany temporarily reintroduced checks at Germany’s borders with the state of Tyrol in Austria and the Czech Republic following their designation as areas of coronavirus variants of concern. The restrictions apply to both commercial and individual travel. In general, persons traveling from the aforementioned territories are not allowed to enter Germany, with the exception of German citizens and their immediate family members, persons who are legal residents of Germany, cargo transport staff and other staff needed for the transport of goods, medical staff, staff of producers of medical equipment and products, employees who are essential for ensuring that enterprises continue to function and persons travelling to Germany for urgent humanitarian reasons. The exempted travellers must provide credible evidence of the reason alleged to enter in Germany and proof of a negative Covid-19 test result.
According to the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the above restrictions would be causing chaos in the transport of goods by road across Europe, in particular, on the North-South and East-West corridors. The IRU notes that more than 7,000 trucks move goods on the North-South corridor through Tyrol every day, and that more than 10,000 trucks use the East-West corridor to Germany via the Czech Republic.
Already on 20 January 2021, the IRU had called the European Commission’s attention to the tighter restrictions on goods transport that EU Member States were contemplating vis-à-vis the new coronavirus variants (e.g. closing or controlling intra-EU borders and Covid-19 test requirements for professional truck drivers). Such measures risk breaching the free movement of goods, one of the four freedoms and pillars of the EU internal market (Article 26 TFEU). The IRU asked the Commission to prevent such risk from materializing by making sure that Member States respect the Green Lanes principles put forward by the Commission in 2020 and by exempting goods transport drivers from mandatory Covid-19 testing. Green Lanes are border crossings open to all freight vehicles carrying goods where any checks or health screenings should take no more than 15 minutes. Their aim is, therefore, to facilitate goods transport in the EU in the current pandemic context.
In its letter of 11 February 2020 addressed to the IRU, the Commission reiterated the importance of keeping Green Lanes operations at all times, even more in light of the need to distribute the vaccines against the Covid-19 in Europe. In addition, the Commission affirmed to be ready to take up a coordination role whenever traffic issues related to Covid-19 arise. Indeed, the decision on whether to introduce restrictions to free movement to protect public health remains the responsibility of Member States (Articles 25 to 35 of the Schengen Borders Code). Nevertheless, coordination at the EU level is essential, as demonstrated by the negative impact of unilateral travel restrictions adopted by Member States from early March 2020 on the functioning of the EU internal market and the Schengen Area. Recently, the Commission proposed an update to the Council recommendation of October 2020 coordinating measures affecting the free movement of persons in the EU. Also, the Commission intends to present in mid-2021 a strategy aimed at building a stronger Schengen area based on mutual trust.
It is clear that the German restrictive measures at its borders with Austria and the Czech Republic are not in line with EU institutions’ efforts to put forward a coordinated response to dealing with current challenges to the internal market and the Schengen area. As a further difficulty to attain a coordinated response, one should mention that Austria and the Czech Republic have started to require goods transport drivers in transit to Germany a negative Covid-19 test in response to the German restrictions. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic acting jointly with the rest of the Visegrad Group Member States (Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) has attempted to seek an EU response to the German unilateral measures byasking European Council President Charles Michel to help ease controls imposed by Germany on the Czech and Austrian borders.
If the EU is to be perceived as a reliable actor in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, a strong coordination between its Member States is highly desirable.
Maddalen Martin Arteche, Reintroduction of checks at Germany’s borders with Austria and the Czech Republic, actualité du CEJE nº 5/2021, disponible sur www.ceje.ch