Coronavirus brings back border barriers in Europe, dividing families and communities

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In southern German border town of Konstanz, Swiss-German couples hugged and kissed across border barrier they could no longer cross after it was closed in mid-March

World | The Independent

When Thomas Schütz, of Saarbrücken, Germany, wanted to visit France, all he had to do was step outside his house.

In March, that changed. As the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, borders that had been open for decades reverted to their role as barriers overnight.

With France under a temporary coronavirus lockdown and officers patrolling the border, Schütz would now risk a hefty fine for crossing from his German hometown of Saarbrücken to the French commune of Schœneck. His neighbour’s house, on the opposite side of a narrow road, became legally impossible for him to reach.

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“The border officers told me to essentially imagine a wall that cannot be crossed,” Schütz said.

The nearby restaurant he owns, which depends on French guests for half of its revenue, faces an existential threat.

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Travel restrictions have increased around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. In Europe, the return to border controls carries harsh economic implications – and symbolic weight. “It really hurts, not just economically but also because it touches upon the identity of us as Europeans,” said Tanja Börzel, director of the Centre for European Integration at the Free University of Berlin.

More than 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down and 25 years after internal border controls began to be abolished across what is now known as the Schengen area, a generation has grown up moving between nations with the ease of crossing a street. But barriers have begun to creep back. Some European countries reinstated border measures in 2015 to keep migrants out. Now, with little warning, the coronavirus crisis has prompted governments across the continent to close borders that hardly still existed in the minds of those living near them.

After decades of free movement, Schütz said, a return to the divided Europe of his childhood “would be so deeply sad”.

The restrictions have temporarily separated families, friends and romantic partners. In the southern German border town of Konstanz, Swiss-German couples hugged and kissed across a border barrier they could no longer cross after it was closed in mid-March.

“It’s absurd,” a German resident told a local paper at the time. She had not been able to see her partner living in Switzerland for 12 days.

To prevent physical contact across the border, officials in Konstanz have since erected two parallel fences. Married couples and international commuters are still allowed to pass.

Officials across Europe have defended the border restrictions as necessary measures to slow the spread of the virus. While at least one EU leader – Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – has used the pandemic to advance previously held views on free movement, leaders on the opposite end of the spectrum have acknowledged the toll the new barriers have taken.

Longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the walled-off East and was unable to freely travel to western Europe for much of her life, said that “the restriction of civil liberties” by her government was one of the most difficult decisions of her more than 14 years in office.

Until German reunification in 1990, the small Bavarian village of Bayerisch Eisenstein marked the frontier between democratic West Germany and Merkel’s home, the communist Eastern bloc. When the local border crossings opened in 1990, tens of thousands celebrated in the small border village, declaring it the new centre of a united Europe.

“Especially the older residents here,” said Bayerisch Eisenstein’s newly elected mayor, Michael Herzog, “now feel reminded of the Cold War again.”

The difference, he said, is that the current measures are temporary, and necessary, in his view, for public safety, however painful.

Border restrictions have disrupted regional economies across the EU, the world’s most closely integrated economic bloc. Nursing homes in western Europe rely heavily on migrant workers who are now unable or unwilling to travel. Many cross-border commuters have also been told to stay at home or must take long detours.

It remains unclear how effective border controls are at slowing the spread of the virus or when they are to be lifted. Germany has extended a worldwide travel warning until at least mid-June, indicating that some measures could remain in place for months. Ongoing border restrictions would threaten to shutter many of the 2.3 million tourism businesses in the EU, which employ more than 12 million people.

Among opponents of the restrictions in border regions, anger over what some residents describe as bizarre rules is mounting. Entrepreneur Hartmut Fey was threatened with a fine when he crossed from his German district of Lauterbach into France last month to walk to a bakery – the only one open in the region on Sundays.

He could easily have circumvented the barrier but wanted to make a point. There is a discrepancy, he said, between “what governments decide” and the reality of people living near borders.

He and a bakery employee now meet regularly on opposite sides of the border, with Fey using a fishing rod to pull baguettes into Germany from a safe distance.

Along the Polish-German and Polish-Czech borders, where Polish soldiers fired warning shots on Tuesday to stop a German from entering the country, hundreds defied social distancing rules in all three countries over the past week to rally against border restrictions.

The government in Warsaw agreed Thursday to a key demand among protesters, allowing Polish commuters working in certain neighbouring countries to return to Poland without having to spend 14 days in quarantine.

Meanwhile, officials in Saarland, a German state that borders France, condemned reports that Germans had insulted French citizens or pelted them with eggs after France’s east emerged as a coronavirus hotspot. Fears among some Germans that French commuters could spread the virus appeared to have triggered the xenophobic incidents.

“Those responsible for this are sinning against the friendship between our peoples,” said Anke Rehlinger, the state’s deputy first minister.

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The rifts that have emerged over the last weeks may be difficult to heal, local officials fear.

When the coronavirus restrictions were implemented, the three dozen French residents of Leiding, a community that spans the France-Germany border, were separated from around 180 German neighbours in Leidingen. After decades of living as one neighbourhood, the police-enforced separation has changed the atmosphere, said Wolfgang Schmitt, the mayor on the German side.

A local official on the French referred to border guards as “uniformed Germans”, an oblique callback to dark memories from the Second World War.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Schmitt said, unfounded fears that French people were likelier to be infected with the virus provoked animosity between neighbours.

“It was a big step backwards,” said Schmitt.

To calm tensions, he used a rare moment when the border was unguarded to drive into the French part of town and deliver face masks.

“It felt so good,” he said.

The Washington Post

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