Blog post

As the Coronavirus spreads, can the EU afford to close its borders?

In 2018, 320 million trips were made between EU countries and almost 2 million people crossed Schengen borders to go to work. Stopping them would cau

Publishing date
27 February 2020

The Coronavirus crisis has triggered intense debate about border closings in the Schengen area as a way to contain the spread of the epidemic. Austria stopped some trains from Italy and as the virus spreads the open border policy will be further tested. Whether or not such a measure makes sense from an epidemiological point of view is beyond the expertise of the authors. The Schengen regulation in any case does allow travel restrictions in case of a threat to public health (Article 2(21) an 6(1e) of Regulation (EU) 2016/399).

This post looks at some of the possible economic consequences of border closings. Many workers rely on the Schengen agreement that allows them to cross the border without any ID controls. More than 1.9 million residents from Schengen countries crossed the border to go to work in 2018. As can be seen in the chart below, 0.9% of the employed citizens living in Schengen countries work across the border. The share of cross-border commuters is particularly high in Slovakia (5.5%), Luxembourg (2.7%), Croatia, Estonia and Belgium.

The Schengen agreement’s relevance stretches beyond cross-border commuting to work. In 2018, EU-27 citizens made almost 320 million trips of one night and over to other EU-27 countries, more than 39 million (12%) of those were for business purposes.

When back in 2015 we looked at the effects of border controls in the context of the migration crisis, we argued that the direct economic effects of additional border controls were likely to be relatively limited. The assessment now would be different: Stopping cross-border travel would lead to a major disruption of economic activity. It is therefore no surprise that the EU for the time being has decided not to close borders.

About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. From 2022-2024, he was the Director and CEO of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and from 2013-22 the director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy, climate policy, geoeconomics, macroeconomics and foreign affairs. His work was published in academic journals such as Nature, Science, Research Policy, Energy Policy, Climate Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Banking and Finance. His co-authored book “The macroeconomics of decarbonization” is published in Cambridge University Press.

    An experienced public adviser, he has been testifying twice a year since 2013 to the informal European finance ministers’ and central bank governors’ ECOFIN Council meeting on a large variety of topics. He also regularly testifies to the European Parliament, the Bundestag and speaks to corporate boards. In 2020, Business Insider ranked him one of the 28 most influential “power players” in Europe. From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister’s Conseil d’Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed member and co-director to the G20 High level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the co-chairs Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Lawrence H. Summers and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. From 2013-22, he was an advisor to the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. He is a member of the Bulgarian Council of Economic Analysis, the European Council on Foreign Affairs and  advisory board of Elcano.

    Guntram joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he worked in the research department at the Bundesbank, which he joined after completing his PhD in economics at the University of Bonn. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund. He is fluent in German, English, and French. His work is regularly published and cited in leading media. 

  • Raffaella Meninno

    Raffaella works at Bruegel as a Research Assistant Intern. Raffaella is a third-year student in Economics and Social Sciences at Bocconi University in Milan, where she is expected to graduate in 2020. Her studies are mainly focused on quantitative methods and their application in economic research. She previously worked as Research Assistant at the Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy (Dondena), working on a project that aimed at explaining the gender gap in the electorate of far-right and populist parties. Raffaella has been Member of the Board as HR Officer at the Italian Section of the European Youth Parliament (EYP). Raffaella has also worked as a trainer of the Understanding Europe program of the Schwarzkopf-Stiftung Foundation.

    Raffaella is fluent in English and Italian and speaks French and Spanish at intermediate level.

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