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With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic being felt across the EU, maintaining the functioning of the EU single market is more important than ever to ensure essential goods and food supply continue reach consumers isolated across the EU and to limit the damaging impact of the economic slowdown on the EU economy.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to accelerate in EU, member states responded by taking unilateral actions to slow its spread and control their borders. Countries including Austria, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic closed their borders in mid-March, while other member states introduced a wave of frontier restrictions, such as temperature checks and visual assessment. This led to the build-up of vast kilometres of lorry tailbacks across Europe (with queues of up to 80km long reported at the Brenner Pass, between Austria and Italy) as well as severe disruption to waterborne and air cargo services. Many countries began to fear possible shortages in supermarkets as orders of agri-food products were considerably delayed, held up at borders and missing designated delivery times. Difficulties too in transporting live animals have been highlighted in places like Germany due to these delays and restrictions.

Last week the European Commission stepped in to coordinate the mitigation measures being adopted to help slow the spread of the virus, while also reducing this disruption to the single market, emphasising to member states the importance of keeping the internal borders of the EU open to ensure supply chains of essential products, including food supply, to be guaranteed. 

Guidelines were issued by the Commission setting out principles for effective border management to protect health while preserving the integrity of the internal market, to be applied on a temporary basis for the duration of the crisis. These guidelines are advice from the Commission to Member states, but are not strictly mandatory. However, EU leaders are expected to pledge to follow them during the videoconference summit on Thursday, 27th March.

These guidelines state that:

  • EU member states are allowed to introduce national border controls and to submit everyone entering to health checks (i.e. electronic temperature measurement) as a public health precaution. However, such checks can be applied one side of the border only (i.e. either on the Belgian or French side of the border, not on both to avoid overlap and longer delays).
  • The smooth crossing of workers should be facilitated through the creation of safe passage transit corridors.  This would apply to transport workers (driving privately) and operators of critical and essential supply chain services, including food (as well as healthcare), allowing them to pass border controls with priority.
  • Member States are asked to designate priority lanes for freight transport at border crossings, for road, rail, waterways, ports and airports called ‘green lanes’. All freight will be allowed to use these lanes, incl. all heavy and light duty vehicles, carrying all types of goods. However, priority is highlighted for essential supply chains and services, which are outlined as including: production and delivery of fresh food and essential food products, live animals and agricultural inputs such as feed and veterinary medicines, industrial inputs for production and maintenance of agri-food processes. That being said, member states are asked to do their upmost to keep all goods moving.
  • These Green lanes are required to have minimised and streamlined checks, requiring only what is strictly necessary. It is emphasised that crossing the border, including any checks and health screening, should not take more than 15 minutes in green lanes.
  • Checks and screening should be carried out without drivers having to leave their vehicles. Drivers of freight vehicles should not be asked to produce any document other than their identification and driving license and if necessary, a letter from the employer. Drivers should not be required to carry a doctor certificate to prove their good health. The electronic submission/display of documents should be accepted.
  • Rules such as travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine of transport workers not displaying symptoms, should be waived. This also applies to third country nationals moving cargo within and into the EU and workers involved in international transport.
  • Member States are asked to temporarily suspend all types of road access restrictions (weekend bans, night bans, sectoral bans, etc.) for road freight transport and for the necessary free movement of transport workers.
  • No additional certifications should be imposed on goods, as there is no evidence that food is a source or a transmission source of COVID-19.

The Guidelines on Green Lanes can be read in full here: https://bit.ly/2JfqxX6

Additional actions taken by the Commission which are applicable to the agri-food sector include:

  • A Corona Response Investment Initiative, which will direct €37 billion of European Public investment to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. Agri-food businesses and producers may be able to benefit from this, with the funding being provided for national initiatives providing grants and credit lines for businesses and compensation to workers who have lost their jobs.
  • Temporary Relaxation of State Aid Rules, allowing member states to further support farmers up to €100,000 and agri-food businesses by up to €800,000.

Alison Graham – European Affairs Executive