The calls for reopening Europe’s internal borders and for a revival of the tourism sector are getting increasingly louder. On 13 May 2020, the Commission presented a package comprising five recommendations, which contain provisions for free movement and tourism – including the protection of consumers – during the COVID-19 crisis.
The gradual lifting of the lockdown is in full swing: MEPs demand immediate border openings, consumers wonder whether their summer holiday will materialize and the tourism industry is eager to resume business. The Commission reacts with a whole package of guidelines and recommendations, which, parallel to relaxed restrictions, shall structure the resumption of mobility. There is nothing less at stake than the revival of central European achievements, such as free movement or the internal market.
Vouchers for cancelled journeys remain voluntary
The most important news for consumers is that a refund in form of vouchers for cancelled journeys by plane, rail, bus and boat as well as package travel will continue to be based on voluntary agreement, as provided for by current EU travel law. Hence, consumers shall continue to be entitled to the immediate monetary refund of tickets, should they so wish. If vouchers have been accepted but not redeemed within a year, companies shall automatically initiate a refund. Apart from that, the Commission recommends securing vouchers in case of companies’ insolvency, for example by setting up national Guarantee Funds. To make voucher solutions more attractive, it shall be made possible to transfer vouchers to another person without additional costs. It is also conceivable to issue vouchers with a higher value or additional services.
However, during the past weeks, several Member States increased their pressure on the Commission and declared – at national level – vouchers to be admissible, even without the passengers’ agreement. Hence, it is very welcome that the Commission continues to regard this procedure as a contravention of EU legislation. Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean announced a letter to the Member States and held out the prospect of initiating infringement procedures against those States that did not adapt to the regulations on vouchers.
Joint framework conditions for the tourism industry
The tourism industry has been severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The Commission refers to 85-90 % loss of income and 6 million jobs under threat. However, the guidelines have little new to offer with regard to the financial support of troubled companies in the tourism sector, often SMEs or family businesses: the Commission continues to count on state aid and short-time work, supported by the European short-term work scheme SURE. Moreover, SMEs shall benefit from eight billion Euro aid of the European Investment Fund. In the long-term, European destinations shall be made more attractive and tourism shall be put on green feet.
Free movement to be reintroduced gradually
So far, free movement of European citizens has been in shadowed by the virus spread. In order to enter the first phase of gradual and coordinated border openings, the Commission has determined three criteria. Firstly, the number of infections and cases have to be comparable and under control in the bordering Member States. Secondly, physical distancing and hygiene measures at border crossings and throughout the whole journey have to be guaranteed. In order to avert damage from the internal market, border closures shall only be deemed necessary under health aspects and must be proportionate. Apart from the mobility of workers, family visits in the neighbouring country shall also be recognised as a reason for entry.
All intra-EU mobility restrictions shall be finally lifted in “Phase 2”. This would be the case if the containment of virus consistently follows a positive trend throughout the entire EU. The Commission announces its intention to support Member States in respect of coordinating any gradual opening and to intervene in cases of disproportionate border closures. Apart from that, the Commission clearly states its position on border openings for certain groups of people: if Member States were to only allow entry to nationals of selected countries without taking into account, for example, the centre of life of travellers, this would be incompatible with the principle of non-discrimination.
Secure passenger and goods transport
The Commission requests the progressive restoration of transport services and connectivity, provided it is possible to keep the risk of infection for passengers and drive personnel to a minimum. To achieve this, following hygiene measures, such as passengers wearing face masks, protection equipment for transport workers or the cleaning and ventilating of vehicles have to be ensured. Apart from that information on passenger density has to be made available; sufficient safety distance must be guaranteed. The electronic purchase of tickets is to be prioritized in order to keep interactions with transport and service personnel as low as possible. With regard to developing health protection plans, transport companies shall be supported by the social partners.