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EU hopes to free borders of virus restrictions by end June

BRUSSELS (AP) — Europe could have its free travel zone up and running again by the end of the month, but travelers from further afield will not be allowed in before July, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Friday after talks among the bloc’s interior ministers.

Panicked by the coronavirus outbreak in Italy in February, countries in the 26-nation Schengen area — where people and goods move freely without checks — imposed border restrictions without consulting their neighbors to try to keep the disease out. The moves caused traffic jams and blocked medical equipment.

Free movement is a jewel in Europe’s crown which helps business flourish, and many European officials feared that the very future of the Schengen area was at threat from the restrictions. These added to pressures already caused by the arrival in Europe of well over 1 million migrants in 2015.

“I personally believe that we will return to a full functioning of the Schengen area and freedom of movement of citizens no later than the end of the month of June,” Johansson told reporters after the video-conference meeting.

She said Europe’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control believes that confinement and other health measures are working. The center says that more than 168,000 people have been killed by the coronavirus in Europe, mostly in Britain, Italy, France and Spain.

“Physical distancing and other health-related measures are still needed, of course. But health authorities are clear that there is no long a clear justification for either travel restrictions or border measures within the EU Schengen area,” Johansson said.

The news should come as a relief to millions of Europeans still trying to work out their summer vacation plans — which begin for many in July once the school year is over — and are anxious to know whether they will be allowed to head to beaches on the Mediterranean or into the mountains.

All but essential travel into Europe from outside is restricted until June 15, but many ministers suggested that they want this deadline extended until early July, Johansson said.

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Janicek reported from Prague.

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