Due to its limited tools, the European Commission has not sufficiently examined the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to the right to free movement of persons. This is the general conclusion of a special report published today by the European Court of Auditors. The surveillance of internal border controls reintroduced by Member States since March 2020 has not fully safeguarded the application of Schengen legislation that facilitates free movement within the EU. In addition, the Court draws attention to the lack of coordination of travel restrictions imposed by Member States, as well as inconsistencies with EU guidelines and recommendations.
All EU citizens have the right to move freely around their territory. This is possible thanks to the elimination of internal border controls in the Schengen area, which includes 22 EU countries and 4 non-EU countries, and which has created a space in which it is possible to move without border controls. interiors. However, this right may be limited for reasons of public policy, public security or public health. Since 2015, several EU countries have reintroduced internal border controls in response to the migration crisis or security threats (mainly terrorism). More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, many member states took steps to restrict freedom of movement in the EU. When controls at internal borders in the Schengen area are reintroduced, Member States must notify the Commission, which is responsible for assessing compliance with the proposed restrictions with EU law and verifying that these do not infringe the right to free movement of persons.
“Given that the free movement of persons is one of the four fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the EU and has been at the heart of the European project since its inception, the Commission should have carefully verified that the restrictions introduced in At the time of COVID-19, they were all relevant and justified, “said Baudilio Tomé Muguruza, a member of the Court responsible for the report. “Our hope is that the conclusions of this audit will feed into the ongoing debate on the revision of the Schengen system.”
We have reviewed the 150 internal border control notifications sent to the Commission by Member States between March 2020 and June 2021, 135 of which relate exclusively to COVID-19. This examination clearly shows that the notifications did not sufficiently demonstrate that border controls were in fact a measure of last resort, that they were proportionate and that they were of limited duration. In addition, the Commission has not initiated any infringement proceedings in relation to the long-term controls introduced before the pandemic.
In addition, the Commission did not obtain all the reports it should have received within four weeks of the lifting of controls at internal borders. As with the control measures imposed as a result of the migration crisis and security threats before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission has not requested any additional information or issued an opinion on the matter. For the Court, there is no doubt: the Commission did not properly check whether the reintroduction of internal border controls complied with Schengen legislation.
In monitoring the travel restrictions related to COVID-19, the Commission also faced difficulties due to the limitations of the existing legal framework. Although the application of these restrictions is the sole responsibility of the Member States, the Commission is tasked with facilitating a concerted approach to minimizing the impact of cross-border travel within the EU. To this end, the guidelines have been disseminated, usually in a timely manner. However, the Court considered that these guidelines on internal border controls were not sufficiently practical or feasible.
The Commission has also launched initiatives to coordinate measures with an impact on freedom of movement. One of them is the “Reopen EU” platform, launched on 1 June 2020 to support the safe resumption of travel and tourism in Europe. However, after more than a year, nine Member States (Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, France, Romania, Slovenia, Finland and Sweden) had not yet provided updated information. Similarly, the Commission’s efforts to make up for the lack of organizational structure for the crisis by setting up the COVID-19 / Coronavirus information group have not led to a coherent approach. The travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic remained largely uncoordinated, the Court argues, and the Commission could not avoid compiling a mosaic of individual measures, which was extremely different between one Member State and the other. ‘other.
According to the Treaty on European Union, “the Union offers its citizens a space of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is guaranteed.” EU citizens see freedom of movement as one of the main achievements after European integration. The freedom to travel, study and work anywhere in the EU is the Union’s most recognized goal for citizens, ranking first in the polls of all Member States, ahead of the euro and peace.
The free movement of people within the EU must be distinguished from the abolition of internal border controls in the Schengen area. Citizens can move freely within the Schengen area without being subject to internal border controls. EU citizens enjoy free movement throughout the EU, including to and from EU Member States that have not (yet) abolished internal border controls.
On the Court’s website.
We also intend to publish a special report on EU initiatives to promote safe travel during the COVID-19 pandemic later this year.
The Court presents its special reports to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, as well as to other stakeholders, such as national parliaments, industry stakeholders and civil society representatives. The vast majority of the recommendations made in the Court’s reports apply.