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Covid-19 – Restrictions on the free movement of people

The impact of the measures taken in response to the "Covid-19" epidemic within the European Union


In response to the current epidemiological crisis linked to the spread of the "Covid-19” coronavirus, many border control measures have been taken by the European Union and by its various member states, notably France.

What is their impact on the freedom of movement of people within the EU?

The restrictions on movement \instigated at the internal borders of the European Union

Two types of standards guarantee the freedom of movement of the citizens of the member states within the European Union (EU):

  • one the one hand, article 3 of the Treaty on the EU and article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) consecrate the right of EU citizens to move freely across the territory of the member states;
  • on the other, the Schengen agreement permits citizens of the countries participating in this agreement to cross the internal borders of these countries without being subject to checks.

These two bodies of rules nevertheless recognise the right, for the member states, to re-establish checks at their borders temporarily under certain exceptional circumstances. Thus many member states have introduced temporary measures, the effect of which is to restrict or make more difficult the crossing of borders. These measures are recorded by the European Commission on a dedicated page regularly updated.

In this context the Commission published on 16 March guidelines relating to the border measures to protect health and maintain the availability of essential property and services in which it provided certain details relating to the movement of people.. It gave a reminder therein that, although the member states can reintroduce checks at the internal borders for reasons of public order and internal security and public health, all the border checks must be applied in a proportional manner and by duly taking account of people’s health.

In particular, the Commission specified that the member states may decide to submit any person entering a country to a health check. Nevertheless, these health checks do not require the formal re-establishment of an internal border. Moreover, the member states must not discriminate between their own citizens and EU citizens residing in their country. Thus, a member state may submit people entering its territory to a measure of self-isolation or to similar measures only if it imposes the same requirements on its own citizens.

Lastly, the Commission recommends to member states to facilitate the passage of cross-border workers, in particular those who work in the healthcare and food sectors, and those exercising other essential service activities (child-minding, care for the aged, critical personnel for public utility services, etc.).

Movement restrictions instigated at the external borders

As far as the external borders of the Schengen area is concerned, all the EU member states approved, on 17 March, a Commission plan aimed at introducing restrictions on non-essential travel to the EU for an initial period of 30 days.

Moreover, the Commission specified in its guidelines that any person crossing the external borders to enter the Schengen areas must be subject to a health check and that the member states had the possibility of refusing entry to the territory of the European Union to citizens of third countries who present symptoms of Covid-19 or who are particularly exposed to a risk of infection.

In this context, the French government has announced, from 19 March onwards, the application by the French authorities of the closure of the external borders of the European area.

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