The European Union facing the coronavirus crisis: the end of a border-free space?

di Juline Lefevre Lancelot - 30 Aprile 2020

from Lille, France

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00098

“Schengen no longer exists, it will be remembered only in the history books,” said Luca Zaia, the president of Venetia (Dodman, 2020). This statement is pointing out one of the most difficult challenges of the European Union, as it is facing the coronavirus crisis. The question of the free movement becomes problematic when it comes to a virus that is carried by people. 

Originally, the coronavirus appeared in China in November 2019, but it rapidly spread around the world. After China, Europe has become the epicentre in February 2020, as the number of cases increased fast in Italy, Spain, and France. 

On March the 17th, the European Union closed its external borders. It was a rational decision to contain the virus, as it spreads with people’s movement. But what about the internal borders that are technically absent in the Schengen Area ? The free border space between EU countries could be questioned as it can be seen as a factor of the covid-19 spreading. 

The Schengen Area is considered as one of the greatest achievements of the European Union. But it is more than that : for europeans, it built the European identity (Stevis-Gridneff, 2020) and it especially paved the way to the European market of today. The critical situation of the coronavirus crisis makes political leaders question the border-free area. More and more are taking the decision of restoring their border controls. In the coronavirus context, the border-free area is seen as a threat. Between solidarity and fold back, what is the meaning of having borders back in the EU ? And what could be the implications of a reintroduction of borders ? 


The coronavirus crisis : an unusual challenge for the European Union  

Since the Schengen agreement in 1985, the European Union is constantly improving its border-free space. We already witnessed a come back of borders during the migrant crisis in 2015, but this time it is completely different for two main reasons. Firstly, the European Union never had to handle a critical health situation like the coronavirus. The other reason is that nobody knows when the coronavirus crisis will be over and how long the politicians will let their borders closed. 

On March the 9th, Poland was the first country to have reintroduced border controls for its shared border with Germany and the Czech Republic. It was soon followed by Austria and Slovenia on March the 11th for their borders with Italy. Their authorities are since controlling health certificates proving that people do not have coronavirus, which are now mandatory to cross the border. After Austria, other countries such as Switzerland, have decided to control their borders. So, except Poland, the first countries that reintroduced border checks all have a shared border with Italy,  Europe’s most affected country. (Didelot, 2020).


The Schengen Area : from an opportunity to a threat

The borders were reintroduced because of the proximity to the epicenter of the coronavirus in Europe. Border controls can be considered as a mean of slowing down the spreading of the pandemic. In that way, the Schengen Area quickly became a possible risk, whereas it always has been seen as a remarkable progress. This is why other European countries have followed the same path, as the coronavirus spread all over Europe. But the turning point was on March the 13th, when the Czech Republic closed its borders with fifteen other countries (Didelot, 2020). Indeed, until Czechia, no country had made such an important decision to close its territory to as many countries. Today, the list of countries that have reintroduced at least border checks is long : Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, Malta, Spain  … (Bouillot, 2020) And it keeps growing. 

So, for the first time in history, the Schengen Area is considered as a threat to a large number of European countries. It is especially because the risk is carried by people. And to let them walk freely in the Schengen area is a risk that some countries are not willing to take. For them, the coronavirus crisis has changed the Schengen Area paradigm from an opportunity to a threat.


A procedure allowed by the Schengen Agreement itself

At first sight, this reintroduction of borders in the Schengen Area could sound like the beginning of its own deterioration. Even if this fold-back behind borders can be surprising, it is nevertheless a possibility allowed by the agreement. The Schengen regulation allows the reintroduction of border controls in case of a threat to public health. It is enabled by articles 2 and 6 of the Agreement (Regulation (EU) 2016/399). The European countries that used this possibility were justified by the fact that the coronavirus cases in Europe were imported ones. As explained by Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister : “Most of the cases that have been propagating the coronavirus epidemic in Poland are imported cases“.(Dodman, 2020).  

However, the reintroduction of the border controls needs to be kept in proportion. Indeed, every “closure“ is not a “hard closure“. It is mostly a formal expression to announce that the majority of the countries have temporarily reintroduced controls on their borders. Even if the term that is used is “closure“, it is a harder word comparing to the reality that it covers. Another point is that it can only be “temporary” as it is stated in the agreement. One country cannot suspend it for more than two years. In other words, it is not casting doubt on the Schengen Agreement, in theory. 


A procedure criticized by scientists and experts  

This strategy could not be as effective as the countries think, as Dr. Clare Wenham from the London School of Economics’ “Global Health Initiative” declared. According to her, “Travel restrictions don’t work: people find another way around it“. It seems to her that it might just slow the coronavirus from spreading, but not stop it (Stevis-Gridneff, 2020). 

The tactic could be “a false comfort“ according to Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson and medical doctor. For her, it is a “delaying tactic“ (Turse, 2020). Similarly, she even accuses those countries to focus lots of resources on closing borders, rather than using these resources on preparing their health system. Margaret Harris claims that they should better invest in their public health system and on protecting health workers rather than on closing the borders. So, many experts seem to disapprove of the efficiency of the strategy of closing borders to slow the virus down. 


A controversy about the closing borders strategy

On March 13th, Ursula Von der Leyen, the EU Commission’s president, declared that closing borders was not justified (Gaillard, 2020). She affirmed that “Certain controls may be justified, but general travel bans are not seen as being the most effective by the World Health Organization“. Yet, individual states hastened to close their borders, highlighting the lack of coordination in the European Union. There is no coordinated plan in the EU to fight the coronavirus. (Dodman, 2020). 

On the other hand, as Eric Maurice maintained, the most critical aim is to find a coordinated answer to protect the economy (Schoen, 2020). To do so, some say that the EU countries need to slow the coronavirus down. So, there is a mixed feeling concerning the closing borders tactic. But both sides agree to say that the most important decision is to make a coordinated one. Yet the border closure is an individual decision. How can the Union keep a cohesion when some states decide to close their borders without consulting the European Union ? 


The coronavirus crisis highlights a lack of coordination of the EU members

The European Commission bemoans the impact of closing borders for economic reasons. Indeed, Ursula von der Leyen assessed that it will have “a strong social and economic impact“. She recognized that “it disrupts people’s lives and business across the borders“ (Gaillard, 2020). Thus, the European Commission warned the UE members about the consequences of closing borders, but some of them chose to do it anyway. 

On top of that, some countries have been highly critical about those who have chosen to close their borders. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron called the tactic of closing borders “counterproductive“. In Emmanuel Macron’s view, the EU countries had better search for a coordinate move instead (Dodman, 2020). The fact that the EU members are criticizing one another brings attention to a possible lack of cohesion of the EU. It is a concern because, in a Union, the members are supposed to act together or at least show a political consistency during a crisis. Moreover, some European politicians criticized the fact that the coronavirus crisis could be used as an ideological and political aim. (Dodman, 2020). For example, in Emmanuel Macron’s outlook, the countries that closed their borders were driven by ideology and political opportunity, rather than by scientific advice.


The coronavirus crisis : a political opportunity to fold back behind borders ? 

As we already witnessed during the migrant crisis in 2015, one of the main concerns for nationalists is the protection of their borders. This query of the borders already was an argument for eurosceptics. Indeed, for both of them, the Schengen Area is sometimes depicted as a burden to their countries, particularly for the economy. With the coronavirus crisis, nationalist parties are advancing their political aims. They are highlighting the dangers of an even more serious outbreak that may come from a free-border area. 

It is the case in Hungary, where the Prime Minister has quickly closed the borders (Dodman, 2020). One statement of Viktor Orban clearly illustrates the argument of borders being a threat. He declared : “We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus“. In his view, there is a logical connection between migration and the coronavirus, because the free movement space allows in these “threats“. In his speech, both of these risks are the same battle. 

Similarly, nationalists in other countries have stated for straightening the borders. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Nationalist rally, praised for border controls since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Europe. Marine Le Pen claimed this need on the 22nd of February (LCI, 2020), when Italy had less than 80 coronavirus cases detected. Moreover, she criticized the statement of the European Commission where it prompts EU countries not to close their borders. (Berretta, 2020). 

The coronavirus is another challenge for the European Union. In other words, it is a new and strong argument for nationalist claims. Indeed, the covid-19 is a concern for every European citizen. Therefore, the epidemic crisis can be used to win people over the nationalist ideology. 



The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that the EU countries could not take a coordinated measure to handle it. Moreover, the crisis highlighted the lack of cohesion of the European Union as the EU member States are criticizing each other for their individual strategies. This is the reason why we can question the present but also the future of the European Union. To some extent, this can leads us to wonder whether the EU member States do not get along on a political view only because of the crisis ? Or does this crisis only expose the lack of cohesion of the European Union ?

On the one hand, a crisis creates political tensions when it concerns several countries. Even in a union, the members still have individual interests, and their point of view can be completely different. It can be the case in the European Union because each country keeps its sovereignty. Therefore, the covid-19 crisis can be considered  an obstacle to the political cohesion of the EU. 

On the other hand, the criticism of the free border area already existed before this crisis. As previously shown, during the migrant crisis in 2015, the free border space was denounced by politicians of EU member States. Moreover, the free-border area was problematic from the beginning of the EU, as the United Kingdom strongly refused to be part of it. Thus, it is possible that the coronavirus crisis is only emphasizing a lack of cohesion. 

In both cases, this crisis might leave some scars to the face of the European Union.


References (A-L)

Berretta, E., 2020. Coronavirus : Marine Le Pen Ment (Encore) Sur L’europe. [online] Le Point. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 April 2020].

Bouillot, C., 2020. Coronavirus: Les Frontières Des Pays Européens Ferment Les Unes Après Les Autres. [online] RMC. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2020].

Didelot, N., 2020. Coronavirus: Les Fermetures De Frontière Se Multiplient En Europe. [online] Libé Available at: <> [Accessed 5 April 2020].

Dodman, B., 2020. Doors Slam Shut Across Borderless Europe As Coronavirus Spreads. [online] France 24. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 April 2020]. 2020. EUR-Lex – 32016R0399 – EN – EUR-Lex. [online] Available at: <>.

Gaillard, B., 2020. [Revue De Presse] Face Au Covid-19, La Libre-Circulation Dans L’Espace Schengen En Question. [online] Toute l’ Available at: <> [Accessed 5 April 2020].

LCI. 2020. Coronavirus : Marine Le Pen Réclame “Des Contrôles Aux Frontières”. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 April 2020].


Reference (M-Z) 

Regulation (EU) 2016/399 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 March 2016 on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders (Schengen Borders Code). Available at :

Schoen, C., 2020. Coronavirus, La Commission Européenne Affronte L’Épineuse Question Des Frontières. [online] La Croix. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 April 2020].

Stevis-Gridneff, M., 2020. Coronavirus Nightmare Could Be The End For Europe’S Borderless Dream. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 4 April 2020].

Turse, N., 2020. As Trump Stumbles On Coronavirus, Health Experts Warn Against Border Closures. [online] The Intercept. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 April 2020].


Autore dell’articolo *Juline Lefevre-Lancelot, studentessa di Political Science, Law, Economics and International Relations at Science Po Lille, Francia.


Nota della redazione del Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 

* I contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.

Editor’s Note – Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

As always, we publish our articles to encourage debates, and to spread knowledge and original and alternative points of view.

* The contents and the opinions of this article belong to the author(s) of this article only.