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Though a ban on freight from the UK was imposed this weekend, France and some other European Union countries hope to be able to ease the restriction from Wednesday – for lorry drivers, returning citizens and other travellers who can prove they have recently tested negative for coronavirus.
Emergency EU talks will be held in Brussels today on how to organise and police a system of checks at airports, Channel ports and the Eurotunnel. And senior EU leaders held a series of crisis talks by phone and videoconference last night. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke privately to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the pair also spoke to the European council president, Charles Michel, and European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
Initial efforts by Macron in particular to force a common EU-wide response to the “new Covid variant” crisis failed. As a result, most EU countries took individual decisions, ranging from 24-hour bans on travel from the UK (Belgium) to 11-day bans until the end of the year (the Netherlands). Other countries, such as Greece and Spain, have toughened their quarantine and testing requirements.
Today’s talks are an attempt to put some order in place, and to agree some common principles on the testing of truck drivers and other travellers, in order to allow cross-Channel freight to resume. There may also be common rules agreed on quarantine periods.
France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, said his country wanted to use its 48-hour ban on travel from the UK to achieve two things. “It’s an emergency and precautionary period,” he said. “These 48 hours will allow us to clarify the scientific facts and to coordinate better at European level.” The aim, he said, was to “find solutions” which would allow truck drivers and others to cross the Channel – almost certainly involving negative-test certificates.
France announced its travel ban after a two-hour meeting of the defence council – chaired remotely by Macron, who is still recovering from the virus himself.
The move has sparked allegations by UK Brexiteers, including Nigel Farage, that this was intended to “bully” Britain into an EU trade deal. These claims are unfounded. French officials dismissed them this morning as “a lamentable fantasy”.
The officials pointed out that, with more than 300,000 French residents in the UK – many hoping to return home for the Christmas holidays – the travel ban was “also very painful for France”. With other EU countries going ahead with bans, starting with the Netherlands on Sunday morning, France was obliged to do something.
Though we are used to crises over Britain’s trade with the EU, this latest one is simply based on the natural concerns our European neighbours have about the mutant strain of Covid-19 taking root in their own countries. As a senior French source said: “We and other EU countries were given little choice by the alarmist tone of the UK government’s own communications on the issue. If London was ordering its own citizens not to leave the south-east, how could we allow travel across the Channel to continue normally?”
French sources say they hope it will be possible to start allowing travel for truck drivers and others who have proof of recent negative virus tests when the initial 48-hour ban ends at the end of Tuesday (11pm GMT).
Officials in other EU countries made similar points. They pointed out that the World Health Organization had asked European governments to take account of the “disturbing” findings on the new virus variant announced by the UK.
The response so far has appeared chaotic, and there has been a clear lack of coordination, which European leaders are now trying to address. For four years we’ve viewed nearly every EU-related event through the lens of Brexit. To do it this time would be wrong. As one Dutch source told me: “These restrictions are not aimed to punish or isolate Britain. They are to protect our own citizens. If the positions were reversed, the UK would be doing exactly the same.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Europe’s UK travel ban is not a punishment for Brexit | Coronavirus