In Depth

How populists are exploiting the spread of coronavirus

Right-wing politicians call for end of the ‘dogma of the open border’

French opposition politicians have called for border controls between France and Italy as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Nationalist Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally), criticised the French government’s decision to allow Juventus supporters from Italy to attend a football match in Lyon on Wednesday.

“The reality is that a border protects populations, whatever the situation,” said Le Pen.

Right-wing Les Republicains MP Eric Ciotti, whose Alpes-Maritimes constituency borders northern Italy, warned of “incoherence” in the government’s strategy.

He asked why schoolchildren returning from Italy were being quarantined, but “at least 3,000 people” from a “very high risk area” were allowed to attend the football match, reports Radio France Internationale.

Former socialist minister Segolene Royal also said the decision seemed “incoherent”.

Local politicians had called for Juventus fans to be banned from the game, but they were overruled by the national government.

Junior education minister Gabriel Attal was sent out to defend the government’s actions, telling French TV station BFMTV that health experts had advised that it was not necessary to stop the supporters entering France.

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What have European populists said?

As well as calling for a ban on Italian football supporters, Le Pen has claimed that France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is lying about the scale of the virus’s spread in the country, reports The Times. So far, 17 cases of coronavirus have been reported in France and two people have died.

“Not telling the truth is in fact aggravating the feeling of danger amongst the population,” she said.

In Italy, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, former interior minister and current leader of the populist Lega Nord party, has blamed the coronavirus outbreak in Italy (which has 400 cases and 12 deaths so far) on migration, and has called for “armour-plated” borders.

But his party’s message differs from Le Pen’s. While Lega Nord wants restrictions on travel from China and other non-European countries, it does not support Le Pen’s wariness of Italians.

Attilio Fontana, chairman of Lega Nord in Lombardy, one of Italy’s worst affected regions, said France’s decision to isolate children returning home from northern Italy was “senseless and offensive”.

He blamed the arrival of the virus in Italy on passengers from China, who he says avoided controls by making stopovers in “Frankfurt, Paris and Berlin”.

In Germany, Alice Weidel, leader in the Bundestag of the far-right AfD party, said the spread of the virus in the country – which has seen 19 cases – was down to the “dogma of the open border”.

And, in Spain, Santiago Abascal, head of the populist Vox movement, said the Socialist government was “so keen to bring down borders it has not even taken the minimum measures dictated by common sense”.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Lorenzo Quadri, of the right-wing Lega dei Ticinesi party, called for a “closed-doors” policy, says The Independent.

“It is alarming that the dogma of wide-open borders is considered a priority,” he said.

Will anyone listen?

Populists will seek to exploit the outbreak of coronavirus to further their campaign for tough anti-immigration measures and the reinstatement of borders within the EU, says the Times.

Most populist politicians are vocal about their desire to control borders in normal times, but the spread of coronavirus has only bolstered their cause.

The Schengen Agreement between 26 European countries (including 22 EU member states) currently allows people to flow freely between countries with no checks.

But populists say that should change, and borders should close.

“So far no country has taken that drastic step, but privately European officials warned that this could change quickly,” says The New York Times.

On Wednesday, the EU’s head of communicable diseases said that Europe should do more to prepare for a spread of the virus similar to the outbreak seen in northern Italy.

“Our current assessment is that we will likely see a similar situation in other countries in Europe, and that the picture may vary from country to country,” said Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“We also need to consider the need to prepare for other scenarios – for example, large clusters elsewhere in Europe,” she added.

Would closing borders work?

Ammon stopped short of suggesting European countries close their borders, which would end the cornerstone EU principle of free movement of people and goods.

But a number of countries suspended Schengen in 2015 to take control of their borders amid the refugee crisis. Rules allow for the temporary reintroduction of border checks for a small number of reasons, including terrorist attacks, major migrant surges or health emergencies.

Marie De Somer, head of the migration programme at the Brussels-based think-tank European Policy Centre, said border checks could show Schengen’s flexibility.

“If health experts and the commission recommend this, then it would show the system actually can function even in a crisis,” she said. “The checks would need to be lifted according to the rules, when the threat from the virus goes away.”

But with coronavirus, most health experts agree that shutting borders wouldn’t contain the outbreak.

“Travel restrictions don’t work: people find another way around it, it might only slow the virus down,” said Dr Clare Wenham, of the London School of Economics Global Health Initiative.

The World Health Organization has advised against restricting travel and trade, while EU health ministers said last week that any travel measures introduced to contain the the virus should safeguard free movement within the EU, reports Politico.

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