Europe is reopening. The world’s largest common market and borderless travel area is starting to return to pre-Covid times. There are hopes that the summer tourist trade could yet recover, kick-starting the economic rebuild among the Mediterranean members. Further north, ‘travel bubbles’ are being built. Europe is restarting. But not all of the EU27 are in the same place in the battle against Covid-19 – and the bloc’s next steps will be crucial.
Across Europe, the media and political focus has centred on two borders: those of Italy and Sweden. On 3June, Italy fully reopened its land borders with its neighbours: France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. That same day, Denmark and Norway confirmed that they would not be reopening their Schengen borders with Sweden, as the country now has the highest per-capita infection rate in Europe. Soon afterwards, Finland confirmed that it would only reopen to Sweden in tandem with other Nordic states.
This is causing tension. Brussels is keen to reopen Schengen to its full, pre-Covid extent as soon as possible. It is keen to see normality return to movements of people, goods and capital within the bloc as soon as is possible. But, as has become clear throughout June, Brussels is very much being led by its members on this issue. Despite calls from the Commission to fully reopen, many members are reluctant to do so. Denmark has only fully reopened to Germany and Norway, as all three are have successfully flattened the curve. This is also the very reason why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have only fully reopened to one another. They have successfully created a ‘Baltic bubble’ as Lithuania is still keeping its Schengen border with Poland firmly closed.
It is this talk of ‘travel bubbles’ that is particularly troubling to the Commission. ‘Travel bubbles’ mean that a member state may only open to other countries that are successfully battling the virus. These countries can set up ‘air corridors’, meaning that countries need not border one another. For example; Denmark has been added to the ‘Baltic bubble’ as it has been widely praised for its handling of the virus. This led the Commission to issue a statement warning members against ‘discriminatory agreements’ and encouraging them to unilaterally reopen. So far, only three Schengen members have done this: Slovenia, Iceland and Greece. Iceland, however, has made it explicitly clear that, should there be an uptake of cases again due to tourist arrivals, they will review their decision. Most members are imposing fourteen-day quarantine periods on all arrivals from members that are still badly hit, like Sweden and Portugal. Some members, like Greece, have also taken the decision to reopen to certain non-member states, like Israel. Romania and Slovakia are also considering reopening their land borders with Ukraine – a country of forty-two million that has been highly successful in battling Covid-19.
But reopening Schengen is still not the EU’s most pressing problem. Those headaches are coming from former member the United Kingdom and from close ally Israel.
Earlier this month, London confirmed that it would, under no circumstances, extend the Brexit transition period. The Withdrawal Treaty does not allow for an extension request to be made beyond 30 June 2020, so a full UK withdrawal on 31 December 2020 is now almost inevitable. Time was always going to be a pressing issue, but Covid-19 has more than amplified that. Negotiations were due to get underway in March, but – as of mid-June – few talks have taken place and almost no progress has been made. Due to the pandemic, both London and Brussels have been more than a little preoccupied. But, now that London has confirmed that 31 December is its absolute cut-off point, a sense of urgency does seem to have returned to the negotiations. The general expectation from both sides is that a bare-bones free trade agreement can just about be completed by year’s end. However, both sides now have major economic recoveries to manage. Time could well become even more of the essence.
Over in the Middle East, Jerusalem is also causing Brussels to reach for the headache pills. On 30 June, Israel will annex more of the West Bank, reducing the area of Palestinian-controlled land even further and increasing the length of its border with Jordan. Despite an international backlash to its plans, Jerusalem has said that it intends to push ahead as planned, come what may.
Jerusalem’s actions are problematic for Brussels. Israel is an important member of Horizon 2020 – the EU’s science research programme. Many member states import technological goods from Israel. On a more micro level, Israel maintains warm ties with all EU members, particularly Germany and the Czech Republic. Conversely, the EU is Israel’s largest export market. It is in everyone’s interests to ‘keep the peace’, as it were. However, encouraged by the Trump administration in the United States, Jerusalem is seeking to ‘incorporate’ existing settlements in the West Bank into the rest of the country. In effect, the move would bring these settlements into Israel proper, instead of their current status as Israeli-controlled islands within the West Bank.
The EU has faced criticism in the past for not more explicitly condemning Jerusalem’s more controversial actions, like its retaliatory gunfire during the Gaza border protests. This might well be why Brussels has urged Jerusalem to think of the ‘significant consequences’ of the move. But Jerusalem has close allies in Berlin and Prague, meaning that the EU would struggle to present a united front against these plans, should Israel press ahead. The EU-Israel partnership is an important one for both parties. Brussels, perhaps more than Jerusalem, has to be careful when it treads this line.
Brussels had hoped for a period of reflection, discussion and reform following the UK’s departure on 31 January 2020. But, instead, the EU has found itself in the midst of a pandemic, a huge pan-bloc economic crisis, a renewed distrust in the union itself and dealing with problematic partners to the west and east.
With Covid-19 infection rates rebounding in the United States and Brazil and a new, large cluster of infections rapidly emerging in Beijing, one has to ask if a second wave of Covid-19 is becoming an inevitability. The first wave brought Brussels to its knees. Unless it can get all twenty-seven members to stand as a united, interconnected, cohesive front once again, then the second wave may well turn the current cracks into schisms.