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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 the Director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy and governance, fiscal, monetary and financial policy, climate change and geoeconomics. Under his leadership, Bruegel has been regularly ranked among the top global think tanks and has grown in influence and impact with a team of now almost 40 recognized scholars and around 65 total staff. Bruegel is also recognized for its outstanding transparency.

    A recognized thought leader and academic, he regularly testifies at the European Finance Ministers' ECOFIN meeting, the European Parliament, the German Parliament (Bundestag) and the French Parliament (Assemblée Nationale). 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 to the G20 high level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. He is also a professor (part-time) at the Solvay Brussels School of Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he teaches economics of European integration.

    He 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 was coordinating the research team on fiscal policy at Deutsche Bundesbank. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund.

    He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bonn and studied in Bonn, Toulouse, Pittsburgh and Passau. He taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh and at Université libre de Bruxelles. He has published numerous papers in leading academic journals. His columns and policy work are published and cited in leading international media and policy outlets. Guntram is fluent in German, English, French and has good notions of Bulgarian and Spanish.

  • 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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