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Did Europe Make a Mistake Reopening Its Borders?
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Did Europe Make a Mistake Reopening Its Borders?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Was is it all for nothing? With Spain, France and Germany recording the highest number of virus cases since they emerged from lockdown, the danger that Europe blows its best chance of taming the coronavirus grows by the day.The hope was that we could relax travel and social restrictions

Opinion

Was is it all for nothing? With Spain, France and Germany recording the highest number of virus cases since they emerged from lockdown, the danger that Europe blows its best chance of taming the coronavirus grows by the day.

The hope was that we could relax travel and social restrictions this summer because people are much less likely to catch the virus when they’re outside enjoying the warm weather. European economies depend on tourism and couldn’t afford a season of empty sun loungers and restaurants. Airlines and hotels would collapse without new bookings, and they implemented new hygiene measures to reassure customers. People were desperate to see friends and families again.

The experiment has backfired. We’re not even through August and cases are surging in western Europe, while south-eastern Europe, which avoided the worst of the initial virus wave, is up against it too. Germany won plaudits for its handling of the spring outbreak, but it recorded more than 2,000 new cases on Saturday — the biggest daily jump since April.

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One big factor has been the restart of intra-European travel, including people going on vacation or visiting family and friends. Almost 40% of recent German cases are thought to have been contracted abroad, according to the Robert Koch Institute. That’s similar to Italy, where almost a third of new cases were imported from overseas. Italians holidaying on Sardinia have also brought the virus back to the mainland.

There has also been a spate of European cases linked to parties. France — with almost 5,000 new infections reported on Sunday — says this is its main source of new contagion. No wonder the European Union’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, is under pressure to quit after attending a hotel dinner with about 80 guests, in contravention of Ireland’s rules.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe must avoid closing borders again “at any cost.” Free movement is central to the EU project, and shutting borders contributed to a collapse in economic output in the spring. Yet politicians can’t ignore the fact that people are catching the virus abroad and bringing it home.