By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union (EU) countries will need to ease border restrictions to let in cross-border and seasonal workers as they gradually pull out of lockdowns and relaunch their economies, the commissioner for jobs said on Friday.
The EU’s executive Commission issued guidelines to the 27 member states in March, urging them to let critical frontier workers, such as in the health or food sector, cross borders. Some 1.5 million people live in one EU country and work in another.
Jobs and Social Rights Commissioner Nicolas Schmit told Reuters from Luxembourg the situation had improved after many countries’ initial reflex to close frontiers, but problems remained.
“One of Luxembourg’s biggest neighbours, more in the east, they have just closed a few border points to enter Luxembourg, which means people have to cross 25-30 km to go to another border point,” he said, in a reference to Germany.
“This is just a reflex, which doesn’t add anything to health security.”
Data on truck crossing times from logistic services company Sixfold show long queues in eastern Europe – between Bulgaria and Romania and into Hungary – as well as into Switzerland, also a large recipient of cross-border workers.
Schmit said he understood the need for health controls, but border restrictions had to be proportionate and not discriminate against workers living in different countries.
“Now the moment has come really when we have to be in conformity again with the principles of the Schengen code,” he said, referring to the 26-country European area which normally has no border checks.
“Now we are in a new phase of exit, companies are restarting and so it is not acceptable that workers living in that member state can go to work and the cross-border workers cannot.”
Schmit said the EU executive was talking to governments to find a solution, including to establish how seasonal farm labourers, also identified as critical, could travel to plant or harvest crops. Local people would not have the skills that the largely eastern European workers possessed.
Up to 80,000 seasonal workers are due to arrive by plane in Germany in April and May, but hundreds of thousands are needed across the bloc. Schmit said a major issue was provision of accommodation that allowed social distancing.
Schmit, whose EU brief includes minimum wages and rights for platform workers, said the crisis had taught people that professions they might not have regarded highly in the past were important and deserved adequate pay.
“No way are these issues that have been pushed away,” he said.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)