By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN
° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.
Massive testing, detection and isolation of the infected is the only solution to increase the health credibility of Eastern neighbors among Europeans and revive the liberalized visa regime for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine…
The health crisis in Europe has diminished the typical advantages of the European project, including the privilege of free movement of people. In mid-March 2020, travel restrictions were introduced unilaterally and uncoordinated within the Schengen area for European citizens, visa holders (17 million application for short-stay visas in 2019) and population of the state that benefit from visa liberalization. In the midst of the pandemic, before the eyes of Brussels, Member States have resorted to their sovereign rights over borders in an attempt to curb the flow of people. Only travel for essential needs has become the norm. The national border police have been able to claim exhaustive control of inter-state borders, for the second time in 10 years, after the 2015 migrant crisis.
To halt the pandemic and prevent the fragmentation of European policies in favor of national policy decisions, the European Commission had no choice but to announce the sealing of the Schengen area for at least 30 days, starting on 18 March, which was supported unanimously by Member States. The duration of the EU insulation has been repeatedly extended on April 8 and May 8, respectively, until June 15. For now, Brussels is preparing to relaunch the movement between EU and Schengen states, but the final decision still belongs to national governments. The latter oscillates between the imperative of socio-economic survival and political-epidemiological fears.
The conversion of the EU into a fortress has affected countries with visa-free regimes in the Western Balkans, but also in the eastern neighborhood – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Many people in these regions have chosen to wait for the end of the pandemic storm in the EU. Some managed to return with the help of the authorities, who organized charter flights and land transport, including for citizens trapped at European borders. The status of those remaining in the EU, however, depends entirely on the political goodwill of the host states. The EU “encouraged” member countries not to criminalize the overstaying beyond the principle of 90 days per 180 days.
The evolution of the pandemic differs among the EU’s eastern neighbors, depending on the efficiency of the national authorities, which have chosen distinct strategies for testing or engagement with the medical institutions. Among the visa-free eastern countries, Georgia is in the lead, followed by Ukraine, and Moldova is at the bottom of the top due to a steady high rate of infection. This data will significantly influence the willingness of EU states to open their borders. There are still real risks that some European capitals will express some reservations about removing restrictions on travel for countries such as Moldova, if the presence of the virus does not decelerate. In addition to mandatory quarantine, more drastic measures could be put in place to prevent the import of infections from the eastern neighborhood. More and more often, for the time being outside the EU, the idea of “passports of immunity” for international tourism (New Yorker, May 2020) becomes more visible. Such epidemiological documentation would imply the submitting in advance of laboratory test evidence on non-infection with COVID-19.
European recipe for resuming the movement of people
In the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the attention of national and European institutions focused on the repatriation of European citizens and residents of EU states. Thus, some 600,000 Europeans abroad have received help to return home, through the consular capabilities of European diplomacy (Consular Task Force), which also has 140 EU diplomatic delegations. Following this, in chronological order, the European Commission proposed a plan of restoring freedom of movement within European borders, with the reopening of the internal borders in three stages and with close coordination (EU, 15 May 2020). The Commission’s suggestions have only a recommendation character and focus on three key criteria:
The first aspect is the epidemiological situation and the reopening of communication between the territories of the Member States where improvement is observed. In order to prevent discriminatory manifestations, decisions to relax restrictions must take into account epidemiological indicators. The selection of appropriate European regions and countries can take place by using the map of the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors the evolution of the pandemic daily, serving as a credible source for policymakers. All Schengen countries and EU members are targeted in the epidemiological map, including the United Kingdom. The map incorporates the Western Balkans, where 5 states have a liberalized visa regime with the EU (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). Also analyzed is data from other neighboring countries that benefit from the visa-free regime – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The second dimension that matters when removing barriers to the movement of people at the European level is the ability to implement isolation measures. In other words, public and private entities involved in the process of transporting and receiving (the hotel sector) European passengers must have the means to protect, detect and isolate those infected. The EU and the Member States have established common rules to ensure that electronic applications used for voluntary tracing apps are interoperable. Even after 3 months of the pandemic, European actors show shyness, instead of launching a concrete initiative to create a European platform. Through this, information on cases of infection can be accumulated on voluntarily used tracing applications, with mandatory guarantees for the protection of personal data. This context can be beneficial to inspire a pan-European network of socialization and electronic communication, for those who want to travel within the EU. For unclear reasons, the European institutions considerably rely on “responsible behavior of citizens”, but more than anything – on public communication tools and on increasing both random and systemic testing capabilities.
The third element highlights the priority of eliminating the impediments that have immobilized cross-border workers involved in jobs related to public health, the social sector or the local economy itself. At a later stage, the movement of people to other areas vital to the single market needs to be relaunched too. Only in this way can supply chains and enclosed services sector be revitalized. That comprises everything that characterizes the intra-European tourism ecosystem (transport, hospitality, consumer industry, etc.).
Even if the EU seems to be hesitant in some regards, it rejects the idea of multiplying coordination instruments sharply. Emphasis is placed on the existing Integrated Mechanism for Political Response to Crises, which can be activated by the Member States or the Presidency of the EU Council (the interface of national governments). Besides, the European Commission is determined to react to restrictions used disproportionately and / or discriminatory in the case of both external and external borders.
The old visa-free regime under new conditions
Although the EU has recommended that internal borders be kept closed until 15 June at the latest, various Schengen countries (Italy, Czech Republic, etc.) have already begun to relax restrictions on citizens of neighboring countries (Euronews, May 29, 2020). There are currently no plans to make the quarantine regime more flexible at the external borders. This disadvantages the holders of biometric passports in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership, who travel to the EU under the visa-free regime. Many citizens from these states returned home, but they wait for the reopening of European borders. Others have not left European territory at all.
Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have developed a significant dependence on the liberalized visa regime with the EU. Some citizens use it not only for tourism purposes but also for seasonal work. Between 2017 and 2019, more than 2.5 million Ukrainians made more than 33 million trips to the Schengen area. More than 2 million Moldovan citizens have travelled about 6 million times in the first five years since the abolition of visas (IPN, April 2019). The number of Georgians who arrived in the EU through the visa-free regime exceeded 300 thousand people between 2017-2018.
Currently, there is a lack of information on the number of Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians in the Schengen area. At the suggestion of the European Commission, Member States have clarified the legal conditions for Eastern Europeans with biometric passports or Schengen visas in the EU (EU, May 29, 2020). Most European countries offered simplified, but also non-uniform, conditions for extending the legal period of stay (90 days/180 days). Germany and Hungary are the only countries that have requested registration for temporary residence until the opening of the external borders (See Table 1).
Table 1. Exceptions applied by Schengen / EU states for beneficiaries of the visa-free regime during the COVID-19
|Austria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Slovakia||The legal period of stay extends until the opening of the external borders. No sanctions apply. Temporary visas will be issued after exit from the crisis (Luxembourg).|
|Belgium||Extension of the period of stay until July 15, with the possibility of extension.|
|Bulgaria||The migration office extends the length of stay based on the application submitted by the foreign national.|
|Switzerland, Malta||Extension of the period of stay by official confirmation from the authorities (Switzerland) or an electronic document confirming the extension for an additional 3 months (Malta).|
|Czech Republic||Legal stay until July 17, plus 60 days, formalized by a stamp in the passport.|
|Denmark||Legal stay until the end of the state of emergency, plus 60 days, with a letter of confirmation from the national police office.|
|Germania, Hungary||Legalization of stay in the country, if there is no possibility of leaving the country until the expiration of 90 days.|
|Estonia||Legal stay until the end of the emergency situation, plus 10 additional days.|
|Greece, France, Romania||Extension of the stay by another 90 days (Romania, France, Greece), based on a request (France), submitted to the police office (Greece).|
|Spain||Extension of the term by another 3 months.|
|Finland, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden||No prescribed action related to the Covid-19 situation.|
|Croatia||Confirmation of the extension of the deadline by the competent authorities.|
|Iceland||All stays over the period of 90 days are legal between March 20 and July 1, 2020.|
|Italy||Overdue stays between 31 January and 31 July are not considered illegal and may be extended until 31 August 2020.|
|Latvia, Poland||Extension of the term by 30 days after the end of the state of emergency. Temporary visas will be issued for the return of persons (Latvia).|
Source: Author’s compilation based on EU data (www.ec.europa.eu)
However, the exceptions offered for those temporarily stranded in the Schengen area are more precise than the rules and criteria that will be used for the travel of visa-free beneficiaries in the eastern neighborhood. Of the three above-mentioned criteria established by the EU to reopen internal borders, the epidemiological principle will play a key role. States with a high “attack rate” of infection may face some difficulties. Among the associated countries, Moldova has the most aggressive spread of the virus (2,792 cases / 1 million population), and in the Western Balkans – the situation in Northern Macedonia raises concerns the most (1,082 cases / 1 million population). Strictly based on the epidemiological criterion, citizens of Georgia, Albania and Montenegro would gain the fastest access to the Schengen area due to the low incidence of COVID-19 infection (See Table 2).
Table 2. Evolution of COVID-19 infection among EU neighbors that benefit from the visa-free regime
|EU neighbors||Cases||Deaths||Attack rate||Infection per 1 million population||Population, million|
|Eastern Partnership’s states associated with EU|
|Bosnia și Herzegovina||2.494||153||75.55||779||3.2|
|Montenegro||324||9||52.07||54 (per 100 thousands)||0.6|
Source: Source: European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as for 31.05.2020. The attack rate reflects the percentage of the population that contracts the virus and is at risk of becoming infected within a specific time frame.
Preliminary verification of persons at airports and at the land border may become a minimum requirement. Other more drastic compensatory measures from eastern neighbors could include the submission of laboratory tests for non-COVID-19 infection upon entry into the EU. But EU structures recognize that such actions can, in fact, create a false perception of safety, as travellers can become infected immediately before or while travelling when the virus cannot yet be detected. Therefore, any type of “passport of immunity” generates risks rather than eliminates them. The public health issue in neighboring countries will be on the EU agenda at least until the end of 2020, as a second wave of the spread of the infection is expected. But to start serious discussions about opening borders, at least beginning in the fall, Georgia, Ukraine and, most importantly, Moldova, will present substantial scientific and statistical evidence that they do not pose a risk of exporting the virus to the EU.
Instead of a conclusion…
There are sufficient indications that European states prioritize epidemiological safety. Therefore, countries with the visa-free regime will be subjected to a meticulous process of assessment of the “attack rate” of the virus. Until infection rates drop steadily and convincingly in the eastern neighborhood, the Schengen countries may keep their doors closed.
The conspicuous shortcomings of “immunity passports” make them less attractive in the EU. However, any European government will be cautious about countries where the infection curve is not declining. Despite the importance of seasonal workers in Eastern Europe or the general interest in European integration in the Eastern Partnership, European health security will be guiding the political calculations of the EU and European states. Extensive testing, detection and isolation of infected people is the only solution to increase the health credibility of Eastern European neighbors and ultimately revive the liberalized visa regime for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.