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July 28, 2020

Travel restrictions are back

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again and EU countries are reacting with more testing or with travel restrictions for travellers. The situation is not comparable to March, when Schengen countries had to close down their borders to contain an exponential spread no one was prepared for. Today, outbreaks are contained in certain areas, protection equipment and testing is more readily available, and hospitals are no longer operating at the brink of their capacities. 

Covid-19 cases have been rising in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Poland. Particularly worrying is the situation in Bulgaria and Romania, with a surge in cases this month by 50% in Bulgaria and four-fold in Romania.

Countries differ in their reactions, imposing stricter testing rules or travel restrictions. The UK imposed 14-day self-isolation for anyone returning from Spain, after an outbreak in three Spanish locations. France restrained its response, and is only strongly advising against travel to Catalonia. But they require spot-testing at airports and ports for travellers arriving from 16 countries outside the EU, some of which already require testing before departure. Greece is also imposing stricter testing rules, and a negative test result is now required from anyone boarding a plane in Bulgaria or Romania. 

The latest outbreaks in the summer season are hitting Spain particularly hard. This is a country where over 12% of GDP comes from tourism. But also holiday destinations in northern Greece are seeing a new wave of travel cancellations from Balkan countries. European travel agents and tour operators are protesting against what they consider a disproportionate response to local outbreaks that is detrimental to the tourism sector and consumer confidence. Spain has been a top destination for British holiday makers, and cancellations or abandoned travel plans mean severe financial fallout for tour operators and the local tourism industry. The back-and-forth with travel restrictions also may impact consumers behaviour in a more unconscious way. The memories of a cancelled or quarantined holiday this year may deter travellers from seeking another holiday in Spain next year, especially if one adds the complications of Brexit to the mix.

For the EU this re-emergence of travel restrictions will become another test in solidarity. Spain sees itself unfairly targeted, insisting it is a safe country that has procedures in place to contain outbreaks. EU countries other than the UK will have to tread carefully here, as they are likely to rely more on tests than on restrictions. But even tests can be seen as a targeted diplomatic incident. Germany is considering whether to impose mandatory rests on travellers from the West Balkans and Turkey. It is not hard to see how this can easily turn into a highly political game.

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July 28, 2020

The EU is about to lose the young generation

This, written by three Oxford students, is probably the most important comment on EU affairs we have read in several years. The theme is climate change. We think this comment is important because it tells us that the last decade of faux crisis resolution is on the verge of alienating an entire generation: the under-25. We have been writing for over a decade now about the EU's inadequate and compromised crisis response, about the big gaps between pretence and delivery, and about false promises and fake headline numbers. Young people's political views of the EU have been formed by the perma-crises of the last 15 years:

"To many of us, the EU appeared less a project of democracy, diversity or solidarity than one of bureaucracy, xenophobia and fracture. What is more, Europe’s responses to these crises were hardly material for a new common narrative. Just the opposite: the responses were the crises."

Their message is that the EU has to deliver on climate policies or else it will lose the young generation. They are very specific about what that means: a total ban of short-haul flights; excluding polluting industries such as chemicals or motorway construction from the recovery fund money. We have noted before that the 30% CO2 reduction target is already out of reach, and inconsistent with existing policies. 

The way the EU works, we can assure the authors that the chances of the EU meeting their demands are exactly zero. As we just saw in the debate on the recovery fund, the EU is a deal-making machine. It values compromise over all else. Ursula von der Leyen and many MEPs are very serious about climate change. But it is our experience that European politicians rarely go all the way for what they believe. We had a discussion on this point only yesterday, when it became clear that the European Parliament, while conflicted over the annihilation of EU-level investment programmes to pay for the recovery facility, is still unlikely to veto the budget.

Complacent minds will probably conclude that those young students will eventually grow up, and accept political reality as the older generation has defined it. There is no shortage of complacent minds in Europe.

The reason why this won't happen lies in the importance of people's formative years. These young people's view of Europe has been formed by the continent's permanently unsolved crises, and by a single overarching unresolved problem: climate change. As people get older, they might soften their views, and may value compromise more. But do not underestimate the impact of formative years on people's general outlook. The forming political experience of the over-40 was political integration, at least in continental Europe. The forming experiences for the young generation are unresolved crises, and failure to act on climate change.

Unlike the majority of EU commentators, these young people are not easily impressed by pronouncements, political spin or headline numbers. Their entire experience of the EU is one of a gap between claim and reality.

The message from this article is: stop the spin, solve the problem. 

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