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Some Thoughts About National Restrictions on Free Movement Between Member States During the COVID-19 Pandemic

2020. August 07. 22:34
Réka Friedery
research fellow, CSS Institute for Legal Studies

Not long ago, the European Union was confronted by an influx of migrants where Member States reacted with different measures, and the EU saw many of its Member States turning to border control to handle third-country migration. However, this time not a new migration wave but an epidemic has resulted in never-before-seen protection measures not only in the EU but worldwide.  Although in recent years the EU has faced several health issues such as the pandemic influenza (H1N1) or the E. coli outbreak in Germany, the Covid-19 pandemic generated such a threat that Member States were forced to restrict free movement among themselves on the ground of public health. Nevertheless, free movement of persons between Member States and the limitation of this freedom have multiple layers and some might wonder whether such restrictions are compatible with EU law.

The Treaty of Maastricht declared that the European Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is ensured. It also introduced European citizenship, which reinforced free movement of EU citizens within the EU. Moreover, freedom of movement is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 45 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although the right can be subject to limitations and conditions laid down in the Treaties and by the measures adopted to give them effect, there is no other provision in primary law regarding these restrictions. Only Article 45 TFEU details the grounds for restrictions on the right of free movement and residence, namely public policy, public security or public health. Indeed, secondary legislation addresses the issue of restrictions but with certain requirements to be met. Directive 2004/38/EC concerns the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States. This also governs free movement of persons who are engaged in economic activities and contains limitations and conditions. According to this, EU citizens or members of their family may be expelled from the host Member State on grounds of public policy, public security or public health. However, the Directive expressly states that these cannot derive from economic reasons, namely, because of the internal economy.  The Directive specifies the kind of disease that can justify restrictions. The only diseases justifying measures restricting freedom of movement shall be diseases with epidemic potential as defined by the relevant instruments of the World Health Organisation or other infectious diseases or contagious parasitic diseases if they are the subject of protection provisions applying to nationals of the host Member State.

We obtain further information about the restrictions on free movement from Regulation (EU) 2016/399, also known as the Schengen Borders Code (SBC), which provides Member States with the capability of temporarily reintroducing border control at the internal borders in the event of a serious threat to public policy or internal security. Thus, in the present pandemic, the reason to reinstate border controls between Member States is that the border controls should help combat threats, immediate or future, to public health. But there are several requirements to meet. This measure must remain an exception and be used as last resort, taking into consideration the principle of proportionality and necessity. The Commission may issue an opinion with regard to the necessity of the measure and its proportionality but cannot veto such a decision if it is taken by a Member State. According to the SBC, internal borders are the common land borders, including river and lake borders, of the Member States; the airports of the Member States for internal flights and sea, river and lake ports of the Member States for regular internal ferry connections. Interestingly, Member States have taken different approaches regarding the use of border control, turning to either Article 25 or Article 28 of the SBC. The two provisions differ regarding the entry into force, the time period and the obligation of notification. On one hand, Article 25 can be used for foreseeable events that pose serious threats to public policy or internal security. This measure can be used to reintroduce border control (an activity carried out at the border and consisting of border checks and border surveillance) at all or specific parts of its internal borders. The time frame is for a limited period of up to 30 days or for the foreseeable duration of the serious threat if it exceeds 30 days. It can be prolonged for renewable periods of up to 30 days but the total period shall not exceed six months. On the other hand, Article 28 is for cases requiring immediate action because of a serious threat to public policy or internal security. Here, the measure immediately reintroduces border control at internal borders, for a limited period of up to ten days, with the possibility to prolong the border control at internal borders for renewable periods of up to 20 days. However, the overall period shall not exceed two months. Another difference between the measures is that according to Article 25 (and also Article 26), Member States have the obligation to notify the Commission and other Member States at least four weeks before the planned reintroduction. But there is still an exception if the circumstances giving rise to reintroduced border control become known less than four weeks before the planned reintroduction. Contrary to this, because the immediate nature of the measure, Article 28 imposes no obligation for prior notification, rather the Commission and Member States shall be informed immediately, parallel to implementing the immediate measure.

While Member States imposed restrictions on free movement, the European Commission published several guidelines to coordinate those actions. The restrictions introduced by Member States were associated with exemptions for certain categories of workers on the ground of economic and social reasons, e.g. seasonal workers in Germany. The European Commission, acknowledging the importance of the exemptions, published “Guidelines concerning the exercise of the free movement of workers during COVID-19 outbreak”. In this the EU Commission emphasised the integrity of the internal market and the criteria that must be met for justified restrictions on the right to free movement of workers on the ground of public health, namely the criteria of necessity, proportionality, objectivity and non-discrimination. Although there is a list of workers included whose occupations are of a critical nature and whose free movement is considered to be essential, the list is not exhaustive. Among others, the document clarified that Member States should allow frontier workers in general to continue crossing borders if work in the sector concerned is still allowed in the host Member State and should treat cross border workers and national workers in the same manner. The Commission underlined the critical and essential nature of seasonal work, too. The guideline complemented another one, the “Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services” that intended to set up principles for an integrated approach of the exemptions used by the Member States to an effective border management to protect health while preserving the integrity of the Single Market. Hence, Member States were requested to designate for transport workers “green lane” border crossings for land (road and rail), sea and air transport. The importance of seasonal workers was highlighted again in the “Guidelines on seasonal workers in the EU in the context of the COVID-19 Outbreak”. That is to say, that in certain circumstances seasonal workers in agriculture perform critical harvesting, planting or tending functions and Member States should treat those workers in the same manner as the workers that exercise critical occupations referred to above. We shall point out, that the restrictions on free movement of workers (shifting towards the free movement of certain workers) imposed by Member States were not regarded as Member States’ infringement and the Commission only called for a common approach regarding the categorisation of these workers. The priority of the EU was underlined in the “European roadmap for the lifting of the containment measures related to the coronavirus pandemic” published by the Commission. It called on the Member States to coordinate the lifting of the measures, but noted that the protection of public health in the short and long term should remain the primary objective of decisions taken by Member States and that respect and solidarity between Member States remains essential.

To sum up, until recently only some Member States have reintroduced controls on their internal borders, mainly in response to the influx of migrants in 2015. Member States’ autonomy to restrict free movement of persons between Member States has the legitimate object to protect public health. Public health is a competence shared between the European Union and the Member States, and EU action in this area is primarily intended to support and complement actions taken by individual Member States, e.g. national policies battling cross-border threats to health. But the protection of economies (e.g. internal tourism sector) cannot generate any restrictions to free movement. Protection of public health can lead to different measures but reinstating border control – whether considering the threat as foreseeable or as requiring immediate action – has to meet the criteria of necessity, last resort, proportionality and non-discrimination. It is also important to recognize that administrative obstacles (e.g. lacking trustworthy data to understand the scale of the disease) might lead to late classification of a disease as a pandemic (remember that WHO declaration is needed as a grounds for justifying the restriction of free movement between Member States) and can cause missed opportunities to combat threats.

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Készült „A magyar jogrendszer reakcióképessége 2010 és 2018 között (FK 129018)” OTKA-kutatás TK által is támogatott „Epidemiológia és jogtudomány” című projektje keretében.

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The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.

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