EU warns Hungary over selective use of virus border measures

International

FILE- In this Saturday, July 18, 2020, file photo, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban wears a protective face mask as he arrives for a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. The European Union is warning Hungary that it can’t stop all foreigners from entering and only allow its own citizens back in after the country announced new coronavirus travel restrictions. Hungarians returning from abroad must now quarantine for two weeks unless they twice test negative for the coronavirus. Foreign citizens cannot enter, except in “justified cases.” (Francois Lenoir, Pool Photo via AP. File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union warned Hungary that it cannot close its borders to all foreigners and allow only its own citizens back in as the Hungarian government introduced those new measures Tuesday in response to what it said was a second wave of coronavirus infections in Europe.

Hungarians returning from abroad will now need to quarantine for two weeks unless they twice test negative for coronavirus. Gergely Gulyas, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, said foreigners now cannot enter the country, except in “justified cases.” He did not elaborate on what those cases are.

Hungary, an EU nation of 9.7 million people, has reported only 616 confirmed virus-related deaths and, unlike France or Spain, is not seen as a current virus hot spot in Europe. It registered 132 new cases on Friday, the second-highest figure since the start of the pandemic.

The move by the government in Budapest adds to growing concerns that European countries struggling to cope with the virus are imposing uncoordinated border restrictions within Europe, putting in jeopardy a key foundation stone that the world’s biggest trading bloc is built on: the free movement of goods and people.

European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told reporters that “there can be no discrimination between EU citizens when it comes to travel restrictions. There are clear rules on free movement in the European Union and every member state needs to follow them.”

Wigand said the EU commissioners responsible for justice and interior affairs had written to Orban’s government to warn of the problems. The EU’s executive arm proposes the 27-nation bloc’s laws and supervises the way they are applied.

“Any measures that do not comply with those fundamental principles of EU law should of course be immediately retracted,” Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said in a tweet. He added that the commission is seeking “further information” about Hungary’s move from government ministries.

The commission again urged EU member countries to coordinate with their neighbors on any border restrictions, as the patchwork of controls across Europe becomes increasingly difficult for many of its 460 million citizens to understand.

“It is very clear, common European challenges require European coordination,” Wigand said.

As many European nations experience a resurgence of coronavirus infections after summer holidays, the new travel restrictions are beginning to recall the panic border closures after Europe’s first outbreak emerged in Italy in February that blocked traffic and medical equipment.

Beyond the economic impact of uncoordinated measures, experts fear that countries are becoming so used to lowering the gates at their borders as they see fit that the future of Europe’s borderless travel zone known as the Schengen area is in real peril.

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