Germany to start easing border controls on Saturday

Beginning Saturday, Germany will start to relax some border controls introduced in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus with the aim of having free travel in Europe from mid-June, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Wednesday.

EU pushes to get tourism going to salvage lucrative summer season

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer speaks to the media today in Berlin about Germany's planned border openings. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Germany will start to relax from Saturday some border controls introduced in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with the aim of having free travel in Europe from mid-June, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said today.

The tentative step, aimed partly at helping the tourism sector, comes as the European Commission prepares to urge a return to "unrestricted free movement," though that push will stop if there is a major second wave of infections.

Germany introduced lockdowns in mid-March, early in the outbreak, and has managed to keep the death rate per capita relatively low compared to many of its European neighbours.

Seehofer said that blanket border controls agreed with France, Switzerland and Austria due to end on May 15 would be extended to June 15, but as many crossings as possible would be reopened and systematic checks would give way to spot checks.

Controls could be resumed if needed

"The goal is that from mid-June we want to have free travel in Europe," he said, adding that controls could be re-imposed if there are new outbreaks.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Wednesday his country will maintain border controls with Germany until June 15, although there will be some relaxation of measures to help the day-to-day lives of those who have to make regular crossings.

Earlier, Austria said its border with Germany would fully reopen in a month. Austria has been lobbying Germany hard to reopen the border, not least to boost its important tourism industry.

A barrier blocks the road at the closed border crossing from Austria to the Czech Republic near Reinthal, Austria in this photo taken Wednesday. (Ronald Zak/The Associated Press)

Germany's border with Luxembourg can be completely opened and Seehofer said he was also ready to reopen crossings to Denmark from May 15, but that no formal agreement had been reached yet.

Controls at the EU's external borders will remain until June 15, said Seehofer, noting it was too early to ease controls with Italy and that he would have big problems allowing travel to the United States. Both have been harder hit by the crisis.

However, he said he could imagine that people in safe parts of China could re-enter Germany after June 15.

In an indication of the toll the pandemic is having on the travel sector, tour operator TUI said earlier it needs to reduce its fixed cost base by 30 per cent and cut thousands of jobs in response to the crisis.

EU trying to save tourism season

Separately, the European Union pushed on Wednesday for a safe reopening of borders, while insisting on protective measures such as masks on planes, to try and salvage the ravaged tourism sector for the lucrative summer season as coronavirus infections recede.

Museums, beaches and plazas have been empty under an almost continent-wide travel halt from mid-March that has destroyed jobs, pulverized the airline and hospitality sectors and undermined Europe's cherished principle of free movement.

Though wary of new waves of COVID-19, the EU executive wants to revive what it can of travel for the June-August season, which is normally worth 150 billion euros ($226.3 billion Cdn).

Its proposals are non-binding, and most European governments were pressing ahead with their own specific plans, at different speeds, depending on national circumstances. Some were also heavily promoting more domestic tourism.

To try to rein in the chaos, the European Commission on Wednesday urged a return to "unrestricted free movement" — if the health situation allows.

"Domestic and intra-EU tourism will prevail in the short-term," the Commission said, as travel from outside the bloc for non-essential trips such as holidays is likely to remain disrupted for longer.

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