Déjà vu as the EU struggles with backlogs at borders

News from Brussels

Source: Politico, 2021-02-24

How did we end up here again?

That’s the question being asked by industry and policymakers ahead of 25 February's EU leaders’ videoconference, as new frontier restrictions imposed by a handful of countries throw cross-border trucking into chaos.

A year after Europe's first confirmed coronavirus cases led countries to shut their borders, truck drivers are again bearing the brunt of travel restrictions, this time to stop imports of fresh virus mutations. That's despite months of promises from Brussels to protect free movement.

“Last year, we were treated like heroes, now we’re treated like cattle,” Constantin Costache, a Romanian truck driver, said on 24 February.

“It’s a nightmare,” Costache said of the border holdups, as he prepared to ship freight to Germany from Bologna, Italy.

Earlier this month, Germany labeled the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria’s Tyrol region as high-risk “virus mutation areas.” It said truck drivers entering from those areas must carry proof of a recent negative coronavirus test. Czech and Tyrollean authorities promptly introduced similar restrictions on their side of the borders.

Germany is one of seven countries, including the Netherlands and France, which now require testing of transport workers, although there are "considerable divergences between the different regimes,” Matthew Baldwin, Deputy Director General of the Commission’s Mobility Department, told MEPs on 24 February.

Although many of those controls haven’t caused major disruption, Germany's hurdles “right at the heart of the European Union” are putting a strain on the promise of “green lanes” to keep border waits below 15 minutes, Baldwin said. “Every single day of last week we saw long lines of lorries.”

Data suggest truckers don’t pose a big COVID-19 risk, Baldwin explained, with few showing up positive in testing carried out in Ireland, the UK and Italy. Of 17,000 trucker tests conducted by Czech authorities, fewer than 34 came back positive. 

Italian authorities have rushed to set up rapid testing facilities near the Austrian border. But trucks still face hours-long holdups, sometimes in freezing temperatures, said Costache. 

“The police don’t ask us: Is everything going ok? Do you want some water? Have you eaten anything,” he said. “We’re like sheep, side by side.” He feared getting infected as he waited for a test in a throng of drivers.

The blockages are a particular problem for drivers carrying perishable cargoes.

EU leaders are expected to discuss the new travel measures during 25 February's videoconference. The Commission on 22 February sent letters to six countries, including Germany and Belgium, to demand they ease restrictions.

“It’s gone too far,” Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said on 23 February. Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said in an interview on 19 February she believed the restrictions are putting transport workers’ health at risk.

Germany's measures go against travel guidance that EU countries agreed this month. The guidance says transport staff “in principle" shouldn’t be asked to get tested and that restrictive measures should be dropped if they cause disruption. 

The German restrictions have also raised hackles in Brussels for directly contradicting the green lanes principle for free movement of freight which the Commission introduced during the first wave of the pandemic.

The green lanes promise was one of the most important things the EU and the Commission did to tackle the immediate impact of the pandemic, Austrian MEP Barbara Thaler said on 24 February. “I deeply regret that almost precisely one year later ... we're even backtracking on the green lanes," she said. "How could this happen?” 

Governments from Rome to Sofia have added their voices to the objections of industry, lawmakers and the Commission.

Despite such concerns, a Spokesperson for Germany’s interior ministry confirmed on 23 February the measures will be extended until at least March 3. The restrictions put a “massive strain” on the internal market, Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth acknowledged, but citizens’ health takes priority.

It was a "difficult decision,” particularly after the “painful experience of the reintroduction of border checks in the spring of last year,” Roth said. “But without tests, it won’t work.”

“We are working on thin ice” when it comes to keeping countries united, an EU official said on 24 February. Leaders are concerned mutated versions will spread fast and may be less responsive to vaccines. “At least we have co-ordination. Without it, it could be worse than what we see today,” the official added. 

Baldwin said the Commission is "pulling every soft lever that we have” to ease restrictions, but with countries retaining control over their national borders, “there isn't a magical power that the Commission has to change of all of this.”

Road transport industry group IRU wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to “implore” her to drop testing requirements for truckers.

Some countries are pushing for workarounds including exemptions for transit traffic and an extension of the validity of tests to 72 hours or longer, rather than Germany's 48-hour limit. They’re also asking for tests to be conducted in, or near, drivers’ vehicles to avoid groups gathering outside testing centres, and for multilingual communication to speed up testing processes.

On the ground, Costache isn't optimistic things will improve anytime soon.

“I’m thinking of quitting this trade, because I can’t work like this,” he said. “These are not normal conditions.”

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