Brussels urges EU states to reopen their borders with the UK
Brussels urged EU member states to ditch their blanket travel bans on the UK as London and Paris raced to strike a deal to reopen cross-Channel trade routes, which have been closed due to fears over Britain’s new strain of coronavirus.
With trucks remaining stuck on both sides of the British-French border, the European Commission said on Tuesday that EU countries should discourage non-essential travel from the UK but keep frontiers open to essential journeys and movements of goods.
Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, said: “Blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes.”
The EU executive’s recommendation — which does not carry legal force — came as French officials said reopening their border to allow crucial freight crossings from the UK depended on a system to ensure that truck drivers did not spread the new coronavirus variant across the continent.
Access via the Channel Tunnel was cut off for an initial period of 48 hours on Sunday evening, while at least 37 countries in the EU and beyond have banned travel from the UK.
The commission guidelines respond to concerns that total travel prohibitions stop EU nationals coming home, bar British people resident in the bloc and obstruct the flow of goods. “Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” the commission said.
It warned that, if member states required transport workers to take rapid Covid-19 antigen tests because of the situation in the UK, “this should not lead to transport disruptions”.
The Brussels announcement is only a recommendation, however, as member states have sovereignty over management of their own borders. The 27 EU member state ambassadors in Brussels were due to hold talks later on Tuesday about a common approach to border restrictions.
Thousands of European truck drivers, almost 1,000 of them French, are stuck on the English side of the Channel because of the French border restrictions on travel announced on Sunday, according to transport companies. Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, said on Tuesday morning that around 1,500 lorries were backed up on the M20 motorway or nearby Manston airport in Kent.
British supermarkets have warned that some fresh fruit and other products could start to run out by the end of the week if the UK trade route to the continent for perishable goods remained blocked.
Most of the south-east of England, including London, is currently in effect under lockdown, in the government’s highest tier 4 level of restrictions, with only essential shops open. Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, warned on Monday that the new strain was spreading across the country and was likely to force more of the country into tougher restrictions.
European stocks recovered on Tuesday after a steep sell off on Monday driven by concerns about the new strain of the virus. The regional Stoxx 600 index rose 0.9 per cent, having fallen by 2.3 per cent on Monday after dozens of countries around the world closed their borders to UK travellers. Germany’s Xetra Dax added 1 per cent and the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 0.4 per cent.
Several French ministries, including those for transport, health, foreign affairs and the interior, are involved in negotiations over the new health protocol to enable the border to reopen. France has said individual travellers will need PCR tests showing they do not have Covid-19 before departure, but the rules for lorry drivers have yet to be worked out.
Allies of Mr Johnson said that a new “border protocol” would almost certainly also involve the testing of drivers for coronavirus before they embarked on ferries or the Eurotunnel.
George Parker in London, Victor Mallet in Paris and Michael Peel and Sam Fleming in Brussels