REVIEW - Belgium First In Europe To Reinstate Ban On Non-Essential Trips Abroad Over COVID-19 Fears

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REVIEW - Belgium First in Europe to Reinstate Ban on Non-Essential Trips Abroad Over COVID-19 Fears

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 27th January, 2021) Belgium on Wednesday restricted coronavirus-related measures, becoming the first European country to reinstate ban on all non-essential cross-border travel for five weeks to curb the surge of new COVID-19 cases and contain the spread of the new UK and South African coronavirus variants.

While Brussels has decided to isolate the country, authorities are wary of a backlash from Belgian citizens dissatisfied with the new restrictions, especially after the violent riots that rocked the Netherlands over the weekend following the introduction of a night-time curfew.

According to Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, the authorities do not intend to "build a wall" around the country, as it remains accessible and Belgians can still travel to other countries, but only for essential reasons.

"We have seen in the past weeks that if people travel, the virus travels with them ... Travelers arriving from South Africa, South America and the UK will have to quarantine for 10 days, rather than seven. Non-residents will be required to present two PCR tests; one ahead of departure and one upon arrival," the prime minister added.

Belgian Minister of Interior Annelies Verlinden, speaking on Wednesday morning on national radio, apart from describing measures to monitor the compliance with the travel ban, noted several exceptions allowing people to go overseas.

"Travel is banned and, therefore, we must also monitor the application of the ministerial decree. Federal and local police have developed an integrated action plan to control roads, international stations, airports and ports. They will be systematic. There will be random checks. To travel, you will need a certificate with a declaration of honor stating why this travel is essential," Verlinden said.

According to the politician, the authorities seek to prevent people from going overseas for recreation and tourism and then bringing home the coronavirus infection as well as its mutant variants.

"But we are not going to annoy the border workers. On their return, people who left for a trip abroad before Wednesday [January 27] will not be penalized. Those who have defied the bans will be fined, the base level of which is 250 Euros [$302]," the minister added.

The measures aim to maintain a balance between the epidemiological situation, the mental well-being of Belgians and the freedom of everyone, Verlinden said, adding that she is also preparing a bill to give the specific legal bases for the treatment of pandemics in the future.

"I also wrote to all the mayors in the country to define the conditions for authorizing demonstrations. We fear serious incidents, such as those in the Netherlands last weekend. We spotted calls to protest on social networks; we must be careful. We will tolerate a maximum of 100 people, with the guarantee of maintaining social distance and a static demonstration. I do not think we will get to a situation like in the Netherlands, but you never know," the official concluded.

The country also decided not to completely shut its borders, mindful of the chaos triggered by some EU countries' decision to do this in the spring of 2020. Instead, residents of border regions will be allowed to cross the frontier for day-to-day activities, while travel for essential reasons, including professional, medical or family reasons, will also be allowed. Those travelers will be asked to carry a declaration of honor that their trip is essential, as tourism is totally banned.

Commenting on cases when Belgians are separated from their loved ones, who live abroad, the minister said that the country's citizens could travel to see their loved ones. However, in such case, they must prove with photos, for example that it is a stable and lasting relationship, and sign a declaration of honor.

Despite exceptions, the decree still triggered a backlash among the population, as Belgians are against the introduction of such important measures without a discussion in the parliament.

"Since the beginning of the crisis, we have been calling [on the authorities] to obtain that all these measures taken by simple decree, be discussed in the parliament, which is the place for it. Since September, Belgium has had a full-fledged government and beyond the legal issue, this passage in parliament is a condition of transparency," the president of the League of Human Rights, Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, told Sputnik.

According to the human rights expert, it is by putting this decision up for debate that the population will be able to further adhere to it.

"Here, we feel that we are at a tipping point. We need a law rather than a simple ministerial decree," Perrouty added.

The Belgian government is very much aware of the danger of a flare-up of protests in the cities, since the measures to curb circulation of the virus also mean suppressing citizens' independence in many areas, such as forbidding them to get a haircut and imposing a curfew at 10 p.m. that kills any social life.

For the representatives of the country's business community, the situation will not change a lot, with the only inconvenience being the reduced number of flights.

"A Belgian ban on air travel? I do not care. I just drive to neighboring airports, outside Belgium: Schiphol [in] the Netherlands, Koln [in] Germany, Luxemburg or Lille-France. I fly about anywhere without problems. The only problem is that many airlines have reduced the number of their flights and connecting flights are more difficult to find," a Brussels businessman who regularly travels across Europe and beyond told Sputnik.

SAME HESITATIONS ALL OVER EUROPE

Demonstrations in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and about 8 other cities in the Netherlands against the curfew and lockdown imposed on the population by the government have rapidly degenerated into severe riots during two nights over the weekend.

Anger has swarmed over the Netherlands since the announcement of a curfew, which follows the closure of schools and businesses. Prime Minister Mark Rutte reacted forcefully by declaring that the riots have nothing to do with protesting.

"This is criminal violence and we will treat it as such. Ninety-nine percent of the Dutch population does stick to the curfew. This violence and rioting will not have any effect on measures in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The curfew remains necessary. It is the virus that is robbing us of our freedom," the prime minister said.

Commenting on the unrest in the Netherlands, Hans Van der Auwera, a policeman in the Southern industrial city of Eindhoven, told Sputnik that law enforcement officers were in full riot gear, as the demonstrators started a violent attack immediately, taking weapons out of their pockets, setting cars to fire, and throwing objects at police.

"Those who were protesting against the curfew were immediately overtaken by minority group demonstrators that wanted above all to loot shops and create havoc. They besieged one of the city police stations. This was a very serious alert," the police officer said.

Everywhere in Europe, discontent is growing. In Italy and Poland, the so-called COVID rebels also challenge the order to close restaurants and the regional curfews. In France, the support for the lockdown measures fell from 85 percent in March to only 40 percent among the citizens who adhere to the drastic measures taken. Some people assure that they will disobey in the event of third confinement because it would be "useless," "infantilizing" them, or would translate a shift in a "health dictatorship."

All EU countries are trying to balance efforts to keep COVID-19 under control while not killing the economy. According to European Council President Charles Michel, while governments are totally convinced that keeping borders open is important to protect the internal market, they are also convinced that when it comes to non-essential travel, restrictions must be possible.

SPECIAL CONTEST OF COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS

The measure to strictly limit travel taken by Belgium has not been adopted elsewhere but is in the same context as all measures of curfews and strict lockdowns taken across Europe, before a looming third wave of the coronavirus feared as more infectious because of the new strains of the virus. With the disappointingly slow campaigns of vaccination across European countries, anguish is at its highest.

"The travel ban imposed by Belgium is a strong signal, even if it has already been applied earlier in the spring last year across Europe. All these measures taken to limit the spread of the pandemic call into question the fundamental rights of citizens. This is an important first element. The rule of law is maintained everywhere in our democracies but this limited accessibility, these religious limitations of cults, limits in education, of the right of assembly and of expression, make it uncomfortable," Benjamin Biard, political scientist at the CRISP center in Brussels, told Sputnik when asked what could be expected in the coming weeks in Europe.

The specialist said that with governments facing harsh criticism for these restrictions, Belgian Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke responded last week by juxtaposing these temporary limitations of rights to the right to life and asked to balance these two fundamentals.

"I do not believe that what happened last weekend in the Netherlands will happen in Belgium, even if collectives like 'Angry' are calling on the internet to act in the same way as in the Netherlands, the next weekend. Local groups are organizing as in Maasmechelen, but they are under surveillance," Biard said.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic last year, groups of citizens have protested against the confinement measures or the wearing of masks in Germany, Spain and Italy, among other countries. So it is not an isolated phenomenon. But the events in the Netherlands turned into violent riots, as they were created by small extremist groups on the left and right, as well as by thugs who took advantage of the situation, the expert said.