EU: Say, maybe Free Movement isn’t sacred after all

One of the main advantages, we’re always told, of European Union membership, is that it affords Irish people the right to travel to and live freely in 26 other European countries. No passport checks, no immigration requirements, no papers – just hop on a plane, land in Vienna or Rome or Bucharest, and you’re as welcome as you are walking down the streets of Sligo.

At least, that’s the case today. In the end, though, the Coronavirus comes for all nice and good things:

There is mounting pressure for a ban on non-essential travel between European Union member states as health authorities warned governments to prepare for a surge in deaths and hospitalisations due to new more infectious Covid-19 variants.

EU national leaders met over video conference on Thursday in a bid to co-ordinate on the issue, amid growing calls from member states for stricter travel curbs within the bloc to avoid travel contributing to the risk that the number of sick people will overwhelm hospitals before vaccines are widely rolled out.

As German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that border controls between member states are a possibility if stricter joint rules are not agreed, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo made an appeal for an EU-wide ban on casual travel.

The problem for Ireland, though, is very different. It’s one thing to ban travel between Belgium and France, or Poland and Germany – those countries have nice, clean, well agreed borders, with no messy complications.

But Ireland might very soon be in a position where an Irish citizen cannot travel, legally, to Paris, but can travel, with no restrictions whatever, to London, which isn’t even in the EU. That’s because we have a border on our island with a non-EU state, and very significant practical and ideological barriers to ever closing that border.

How much of the new Covid infections coming into Ireland are coming through Dublin airport from EU countries, do we think? And how many of them are driving from Culloville to Castleblayney?

Anyway, pity poor Leo Varadkar. Only yesterday he was saying this:

Varadkar said that Ireland has seen a huge reduction in incoming foreign travel, with the number dropping down to a new low of 33,000 people entering the State per week, and claimed that the majority of these people were undertaking “essential travel”.

He argued that quarantining travellers upon arrival in Ireland would be “disproportionate”, because people already living here who test positive for covid do not have to quarantine. He also argued that it would go against the European Union’s strict rules on allowing freedom of movement and open borders between member states.

Closing the borders and introducing mandatory quarantine for inward travellers is the current political fad, as you may have noticed. But nearly all of the calls for exactly that measure seem to skirt around the thorny issue of the border with Northern Ireland. Back during the Brexit talks, the border with Northern Ireland was all anybody could talk about – and how devastating it would be, as well as practically impossible it would be, to close it.

Unless the UK does something completely unthinkable – like banning travel between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland – then the border on this island presents an unfixable covid problem, if quarantines and travel bans are something you support.

Anyway, maybe we’re looking at this all the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about keeping foreigners out of Ireland.

Maybe it’s about keeping Irish people out of other countries:

Ireland is currently ranked highest in the EU for its rates of Covid-19 in the ECDC’s 14-day incidence chart and has the highest prevalence of the British variant in the bloc, meaning that there are concerns about travel from the Republic in particular.

Yes, we’re one of those countries now.

Anyway, the main point here is that if this proceeds, it will be the first time since free movement was enacted that it will have been suspended, or restricted, for any reason at all, with the exception of the Foot and Mouth pandemic in cattle in the first years of this century.

It will devastate Europe’s travel industry, and cost untold hundreds of millions, if not more. With the trajectory of the virus heading in broadly the right direction, is it really worth it? At this stage, it’s the vaccine, or bust. Spending masses of energy and piles of money restricting travel brings us no closer to full vaccination, and brings us considerably closer to bust.

There are many reasons the Government won’t want to do it.

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