By Pim Mertens & Martin Unfried
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted every aspect of life. Today, 19 July 2023, the mandate of the ‘Special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned and recommendations for the future’ (COVI) came to an end. In March 2022, the European Parliament agreed on the establishment of this committee. COVI evaluated the pandemic’s impact on health systems, the vaccination campaign, the broader socio-economic impact, the impact on the rule of law and democracy, and the international response to the pandemic. On 12 June 2023 the final report on the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned and recommendations for the future was adopted (with 23 votes in favour, 13 votes against, and 1 abstention). The report highlights the effects of the pandemic on the economic and social life of European citizens, and establishes a set of recommendations to the Commission and Member States to address gaps and weaknesses in the response to the crisis and to better prepare the EU for future cross-border health threats.
ITEM Research and conclusions on COVID-19
When considering EU policy areas, EU citizenship, and in particular the freedom of movement connected to the EU internal market and borderless movement ensured in the Schengen Area have been severely affected and at times even disrupted. Within the EU, the disruption of cross-border movements has been particularly problematic for cross-border regions. Indeed, these areas often have strongly intertwined societies (even family relations) where work, study, leisure, and family lifetakes place following cross-border movements. Whereas measures were primarily aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, some of these had detrimental effects to mobility. Some of these measures affected cross-border mobility by nature (i.e. resulting in entry restrictions). The restrictive effects of other measures in terms of mobility paired with a lack of coordination resulted in a patchwork of measures having a considerable impact on mobility, especially in cross-border regions. Called ‘living labs of EU integration’ by the European Commission (DG REGIO) border regions faced the shortcomings not only of EU integration but also of horizontal integration of cross-border territories. ITEM research earlier showed three handicaps when it comes to cross-border crisis management of the COVID-19 pandemic: on the European level, the national level and the (eu)regional level. Instead of solidarity across borders and efficient use of medical capacities in euregions, the crisis management was defined by national borders. Smart cross-border cooperation in the field of Intensive Care-capacities was already established in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine but this was hindered rather than stimulated during the crisis. Read more about it in our earlier blog. A bitter conclusion from ITEM research was that the existing cross-border governance system was not robust enough for this crisis. Vertical top-down steering prevented the stakeholders in the border region to benefit from earlier network structures. The result: a patchwork of national measures, national minded policies and problems in cross-border regions where non-coordinated measures clash with each other and create friction and obstacles to mobility, both directly and indirectly.
In the ITEM study in the framework of EU-Citzen for DG JUST of July 2021, ITEM examined exactly the latter: the fundamental free movement rights resulting from EU citizenship. The dynamic of COVID-19 measures and coordination efforts in cross-border regions was studied, as well as the extent to which they achieve an adequate balance of interests in light of proportionality. Travel advice, quarantine, testing and administrative obligations, all measures impacted mobility. Even where testing can deemed to be proportionate, the impact on daily life must not be underestimated. Even though proportionality require that measures are targeted to the risk of an area and should make a distinction between different risk assessments, a certain ‘all or nothing’ approach was identified among Member States. In this respect, in the absence of an exemption both quarantine and a testing requirement could apply. This accumulation of entry restrictions could still effectively be equivalent to a travel ban. In this regard, sufficient exemptions, especially including adequate time-based exemptions can be recommendable. Policy makers should be careful of “certified mobility” in which the right to free mobility is limited only to those who are classified as ‘essential’ or under the EU Digital COVID-19 Certificate. These certifications should not go beyond what is necessary (to combat a pandemic).
Although the Council Recommendation was an important turning point in the aspect of free movement in times of COVID-19, the national implementation showed differences still impacting mobility. Definitions or principles that were vaguely described, were interpreted differently by Member States. Furthermore, the non-binding nature led to a lack of commitment in some Member States, possibly harming the proportionality.
And last but not least, during the pandemic within the framework of the PANDEMRIC-project Euregional overviews of the national measures in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany were made. That in total more than 200 overviews were made in order to keep up to the multiple changes per week and country, is an indication that the situation in the cross-border region was complex, and for many citizens extremely confusing. A common recommendation of the two studies of ITEM, to crisis management and freedom of movement, is then also to come to better cross-border arrangements and to have adequate multilevel governance structures, facilitating a coordinated response and dialogue across levels and borders. It is thereby important to acknowledge the already existing (local) structures, such as within EMRIC (the Euregio Meuse-Rhine Incident Control and Crisis Management network) should play a vital role in crisis management in the future and national top-down approaches should not overrule their functioning.
Recommendations of the European Parliament
In 621 lines, the Parliament defines recommendations, requests, considerations on four pillars of health, democracy and fundamental rights, social and economic impact, and EU and the world. Find a short summary of the set of recommendations here. In the following, we select and comment on certain concrete recommendations:
|Health||109. Notes that vaccination strategy, not only for COVID-19, remains a national competence and calls for a stronger coordination role for the EU to harmonise the timeline, scope and outcomes of vaccines administration in all the Member States; recognises vaccination as a key pillar of resilient health systems, societal well-being and a healthy economy;|
|136. Emphasises the importance of monitoring and tracking health workforce availability across Europe at an EU level and recommends the exploration of opportunities to ease and better organise cross-border redistribution of workforce in specifically relevant circumstances (e.g. border areas), such as through leveraging mutual professional recognition instruments; highlights the crucial role of physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals in providing treatment and calls for wider recognition of their experience and knowledge;|
|140. […] calls on the Commission and the relevant EU agencies to organise targeted training activities for healthcare workers in close cooperation with professional health organisations and patient organisations, including on interdisciplinary One Health trainings; emphasises the importance of joint cross-border training, the sharing of best practices and familiarity with the neighbouring public health systems in cross-border regions;|
|141. Calls for regional cooperation with neighbouring Member States to overcome the lack of medical personnel in the event of a major crisis; recommends that health workforce availability across Europe be monitored at EU level;|
|260. Underlines to this end the importance of information sharing between Member States and EU authorities, the interoperability of information systems, new tools and research to strengthen interdisciplinary research and human and social sciences as regards the impact of pandemics and non-pharmaceutical measures|
|277. Urges that common and joint procurement procedures in emergency situations be improved and a more coordinated approach taken, allowing for contracts to be adapted;|
|340. Recommends further including representatives of local, regional and territorial authorities and communities, including elected officials, representatives of civil society organisations and social partners, in the interinstitutional, multilevel process […];|
|A coordinated approach with respect for democracy and fundamental rights||346. […] highlights that the EU COVID Digital Certificate and tracing apps based on the Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) protocol respected this legislative framework, while allowing the free movement of EU citizens under the sanitary rules applied during the crisis; underlines that both systems were developed by European privacy engineers and have been used all over the world; recalls that the EU COVID Digital Certificate has enabled coordination between the Member States by putting in place harmonised rules at EU level, avoiding divergent systems between Member States and disorganisation;|
|368. Highlights that, in response to COVID-19 infections, several Schengen states reintroduced internal border controls or closed their borders, without epidemiological criteria, or imposed restrictions on certain categories of travellers, including EU citizens and their family members and non-EU nationals residing on their territory or that of another Member State, undermining the principle of the freedom of movement and the essence of the Schengen cooperation; is concerned that these travel restrictions and measures challenged the integrity of the Schengen area, undermined the functioning of the internal market and had a negative impact on the economy;|
|370. Notes that Member States did not always notify the Commission of new border controls, or submit the compulsory ex post reports assessing, among other points, the effectiveness and proportionality of their controls at internal borders, and when these reports were submitted, they often failed to provide sufficient information on these issues; recognises that this affected the Commission’s ability to carry out a robust analysis of the extent to which the border control measures complied with the Schengen legislation; reiterates that any internal border controls should be proportionate and a measure of last resort and of limited duration and underlines that the Commission should exercise proper scrutiny to ensure that internal border controls comply with the Schengen legislation and to streamline data collection about travel restrictions and provide more actionable guidance on the implementation of internal border controls;|
|371. […] welcomes the action taken to install ‘green lanes’ to safeguard the working of the single market and the free movement of goods, but calls for tailored action plans to be prepared to safeguard the free movement of cross-border workers and people in future crises; […]|
|372. Takes note of the Commission proposal to amend Regulation (EU) 2016/399 of 9 March 2016 on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders (Schengen Borders Code)(51) addressing, inter alia the capacity of the Schengen Member States to respond in a uniform manner to major public health threats; highlights the need to follow a coordinated approach among the Member States in cases of health crises, to ensure that the reintroduction of internal border controls by the Member States is used as an absolute last resort and in compliance with the principle of proportionality and to guarantee respect of the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement during health crises;|
|385. Reminds the Member States that the option to temporarily reintroduce border controls at the internal borders must be applied as an absolute last resort measure in exceptional situations such a serious threat to public policy or internal security and must respect the principle of proportionality;|
|386. Calls on the Member States to consider carrying out an ex post review of how national legal regimes were prepared for the measures required by the pandemic with a view to maximising their preparedness and legal framework for future crises;|
|Social and economic impact||392. […] underlines that the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on certain categories of workers, such as the self-employed, those in feminised work sectors, platform workers, freelance workers, contractual workers including sub-contracted, seasonal and temporary workers, cross-border workers and those in the cultural and creative sectors as well as tourism, hospitality and retail; notes that as a result of the pandemic, the income gap in the EU has widened and socioeconomic disparities have deepened;|
|Final recommendations||572. Calls on the Commission to propose actions and instruments, as well as on the Member States to invest more in healthcare, including via the use of RRF and cohesion funding in order to reduce healthcare disparities, strengthen national public health and social care systems and enhance cross-border health cooperation in order to tackle serious threats to health and safety in the EU;|
|579. Calls on the Commission to exercise close scrutiny of any potential national measures regarding internal border controls during health crises and to ensure that such internal border control comply with the Schengen legislation and is a measure of last resort, proportionate and of limited duration; emphasises that all internal border controls and restrictions of movement must be exceptional, and that in the event of future health crises any possible travel restrictions need to be grounded in the principles of equity and inclusion; encourages harmonising possible future travel restrictions at EU level through an EU legislative procedure with a coordinated approach instead of non-binding Council and Commission recommendations;|
|597. Calls on the Commission to update its practical border handbook with examples of good practices for internal border management in order to increase coordination among the Member States, after a comprehensive review of the measures imposed for internal border control during the pandemic and their impact;|
|610. Calls for an assessment of the current global health governance frameworks and welcomes, in this respect, the Pandemic Preparedness Treaty;|
Some of the recommendations directly align with earlier recommendations by ITEM. Regarding the internal border control mechanisms, the ITEM study in the framework of EU-Citzen analyzed the national direct and indirect border restrictions and argues that some of them were not proportionate. In the proportionality assessment it is recommendable to explicitly include the perspective of the cross-border region, where cross-border movements are part of the day-to-day societal life.
Indeed the ITEM study revealed that the Council Recommendation was not adequate enough, when national implementations still greatly differs. A better harmonized approach in Brussels would be beneficial for border regions. In this approach, there should also be more detailed data on (eu)regional and cross-border aspects, enabling policy-makers to assess the local and cross-border situation. In this respect, the data of ECDC during the COVID-19 pandemic was too limited. Also crucial definitions were still differently interpreted among neighbouring countries what led to problems in the border regions with respect to the comparability of measures. Unfortunately, proposals for concrete improvements in the field of harmonisation of definitions are not mentioned by the resolution.
Regarding cross-border crisis management, earlier a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) was proposed and introduced. HERA has a preparedness phase and a crisis phase. During a crisis, amongst others via a Health Crisis Board, a more coordinated response should be ensured. The resolution greatly emphasises the importance of cooperation across border regarding health care. Yet, cross-border cooperation in health care, e.g. cooperation across national IC-departments and the transfer of patients across borders, was more limited than improved by the COVID-measures. Indeed having more insight in health care capacities across borders and an euregional approach towards capacities and exchanges would benefit the border regions. For instance, the stimulation of partnerships between hospital in cross-border territories could be actively supported with agreements on solidarity measures in times of crisis.
It is as well a pity that the European Parliament has given less attention to the social side effects of the COVID-measures in border regions. It is mentioned, cross-border workers were disproportionately impacted by measures. However, it is important to note that especially the citizens in border regions do not only work across the border, but also enjoy personal life and rights across borders. Due to unknown obstacles to cross the border and diverging national measures, it can be argued that the society in the border region as such was impacted more disproportionately than in inland situations like capital cities. In addition, ad-hoc support and financial measures were often designed within the national boundaries, often to a disadvantage of the ones who are economically active across the border.
In 2021 the Netherlands and North Rhine-Westphalia signed a Corona-declaration in the framework of the bilateral Grenzlandkonferenz. One of the common principles and conclusions was the development of a coherent approach to cross-border crisis management. Until now, no protocols or bilateral/multilateral/European agreements have been adopted to improve the cross-border functioning during a cross-border health crisis in the future. In the European Parliament, the mandate of the special committee COVI has ended. It is now time to discuss and implement concrete measures for a better crisis management in the case of a future crisis, which takes account of the specific situation of cross-border regions.
 Buiskool, Lakerveld, Unfried (2021). Covid-19 Crisis-management in the Euroregion Meuse- Rhine. Maastricht: ITEM. Research in the framework of the INTERREG EMR project PANDEMRIC (EMR177)
 Mertens, P., Sivonen, S., Kortese, L., & Schneider, H. (2021). Cross-border mobility in times of COVID-19: Assessing COVID-19 Measures and their Effects on Cross-border Regions within the EU. EU-CITZEN: Academic Network on European Citizenship Rights.