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A small corner of Belgium is trying to keep Europe’s borders open.
Many European countries, including Belgium, shuttered their frontiers this spring in a bid to stop the coronavirus from spilling onto their territories when it arrived on the Continent — an approach the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) later said was ineffective.
Now petitioners from Ostbelgien — a small German-speaking area that Germany ceded after World War I — want the EU to rethink its Schengen open border rules to make sure another health emergency doesn’t spark a new wave of frontier restrictions.
“My fear is that border closures become a commonplace instrument member states will have recourse to for every problem,” Pascal Arimont, a local MEP, told POLITICO.
Lutz-René Jusczyk, from the city of Eupen, a stone’s throw from Germany, started an online petition during the lockdown to lift restrictions on the borders — a plea that quickly gathered over 7,500 signatures. With the backing of Arimont and fellow petitioner Mäggy Pricken-Rossberg, he’s brought his push to the EU.
People who built their lives in a world with barely-present borders were at a disadvantage during the coronavirus crisis.
The petitioners want Brussels to think up a “Schengen 2.0” strategy, with a coordinated response in the event of a new health emergency. The European Commission, together with the ECDC, should get powers to assess whether border closures meet key criteria to make sure they remain a last resort, they said.
Coronavirus restrictions hit close to home for Belgium’s petitioners. The German-speaking community is a part of the Meuse-Rhine region that covers parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Cross-border exchanges have helped overcome prejudice and postwar resentment on all sides, Arimont said. “Nowadays, [it’s] difficult to notice that you are crossing a border. Crossing borders has become a very natural thing — as it should be in Europe.”
But people who built their lives in a world with barely-present borders were at a disadvantage during the coronavirus crisis. Families and friends were kept apart — a “painful experience,” Pricken-Rossberg told MEPs in the European Parliament’s petitions committee last week.
The closure also halted cross-border shopping trips and created a patchwork economy that halted sectors in one country but not the next.
“I have often been asked the question ‘Is this the Europe that you politicians always talk about?’” Arimont said. “And rightly so.”
In Belgium, about one third of the population lives within 50 kilometers of a border, but the issue resonates across the Continent. According to petitioners, border regions make up 40 percent of European territory and include 30 percent of its population.
“This is not a minor problem,” Pricken-Rossberg said. “Unfortunately this is often forgotten in the capitals.”
MEPs in the petitions committee decided to continue work on the issue and the center-right European People’s Party wants to turn the petition into a Parliament resolution.
While “there’s no doubt” that measures countries implemented to stem the spread of the coronavirus “have been justified in principle,” the bloc must coordinate better in the future, Matthias Oel, the director for borders at the Commission’s Home Affairs department, told MEPs.
The Commission wants to make sure existing Schengen rules are used better and is mulling legal changes, he said.
In 2017, the Commission proposed changes to the Schengen Borders Code to improve coordination in response to increasingly frequent border closures — then inspired by migration waves and terrorist threats — but the procedure is held up in Council.
Meanwhile, EU countries’ lack of coordination on health measures keeps the threat of new border closures alive.
“We do not want to experience this once again,” Arimont said.
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