Brussels launched a major effort Wednesday designed to reassure the travel industry and tourists that the holiday season can be saved.
The main takeaway? Don’t start packing your suitcase.
The package on tourism and transport included more than 70 pages of guidance and two hours of press conferences held by five of the bloc’s commissioners laying out plans for a gradual return to cross-border travel, restoring the free movement of travelers around the bloc and beyond.
But overshadowing the specific details of the theoretical plan was the acknowledgement that there is very little the European Commission can do about the two major factors: The unpredictability of the coronavirus, and the independence of national capitals.
“We want to enjoy a summer holiday. We would like to see our families and friends even if they live in another region, in another EU country. But we want to be able to do so while staying healthy and safe,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said.
“It’s a difficult balance to strike. There are no simple answers. And we won’t find them all today, because this will be an ongoing process,” he said.
Here are some of the major questions that remained (largely) unanswered.
Is it safe to travel?
The Commission drew up a list of measures to limit the risk of contamination while traveling, as transport services get up and running again. That includes wearing face masks, running emptier vehicles, using electronic documents and putting in place protective barriers for transport workers.
The risks of cross-border travel can be limited further by only allowing travel between regions that have gotten a grip on the virus, the Commission said. But that will also demand physical distancing to be adhered to at all times, while countries must also have the necessary health care, testing and contact-tracing capacity in place to nip any new outbreaks in the bud.
Starting up cross-border travel again “is not going to be risk-free,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said. “We need to be open and honest about this.”
When can you travel?
European Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday called on countries to reopen their EU borders “as soon as possible.” That’s “essential for our economies and for tourism,” he argued.
The Commission warned that delaying this beyond what’s needed for health reasons puts “a heavy burden” on EU citizens and the single market.
But — while the Commission’s advice tells EU countries how to start moving again — it doesn’t address the crucial question of when.
With the virus here to stay for now, it’s impossible to chart a fixed timeline, said Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs. It will also demand constant monitoring. “We have to measure all the time to find out whether the situation is getting worse. I hope not, but if so we need to be able to make amendments,” she said.
On the same day as the Commission announcements, Germany eased some border restrictions but said freedom of movement won’t return until June 15. Poland on Wednesday said its own border controls will remain in place until June 12, while the three Baltic countries plan to end restrictions on travel in their region by Friday.
Where can you travel?
The Commission advocates a two-step approach: Before allowing travel throughout the bloc, travel restrictions should first be eased between regions with similarly rosy prospects. Once that happens, there’s no question of discrimination on the basis of nationality — which would be illegal under the bloc’s rules. “It’s not possible to make this discrimination according to passport,” Johansson said.
Countries don’t have to lift all travel restrictions at once, but when they do, they should also welcome travelers from all countries in a similar situation. The idea is that travelers would be able to monitor which countries they can travel to online.
But the data isn’t yet available yet to figure out how these travel bubbles could be organized. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is collecting figures on countries and regions, Kyriakides said — with the idea that it will create a map showing the spread of the disease.
What about outside the EU?
The Commission has asked countries to restrict non-essential travel from outside the bloc until at least June 15. It said it is targeting opening up the bloc’s internal borders first before it will rethink restrictions on travel from beyond the EU.
“We are not there yet,” Johansson said.
Will you face quarantine requirements?
That shouldn’t be necessary if good containment measures are in place at a traveler’s point of departure and destination, Kyriakides said. But ultimately, it’s up to EU countries to decide whether arrivals have to self-isolate.
There, it’s a bit of mixed bag. Poland mandates a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country, Spain is imposing the same policy as of Friday, France’s quarantine isn’t supposed to apply to travelers from within the bloc.
If your holiday is canceled, will you get your money back?
The Commission insisted that under EU laws, passengers have a right to a refund.
“If you have lost your job, if this is your entire holiday budget for travelling that sits in these tickets you cannot use anymore, then you need a refund. And that is why we say this is your right, full stop,” Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said Wednesday.
But many countries have allowed companies to dodge those regulations for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, and the Commission was unclear about what steps it is taking to enforce the rules.
Vestager said the Commission is sending letters to countries telling them to get in line — but Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said those are letters of “encouragement” rather than the first step in official infringement proceeding. Even if the Commission does launch legal action, it could take years to conclude.
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