Dr. Leila Hadj Abdou is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna, Austria and a Part-time Assistant Professor at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Italy.
One year ago, the Q1 2021 Global Mobility Report highlighted that movement in Europe would remain constrained until Covid-19 vaccines were widely available. Few anticipated the extent to which today, more than two years after first known infections from SARS-CoV-2 were discovered, Covid-19 would remain a major hurdle, limiting international mobility. Yet the continuation of economic recovery in the EU and the regaining of the trust of the population in their governments depend on how mobility can be revived safely and effectively.
An end to the pandemic in 2022 seems highly unlikely for many reasons — not least, global vaccination inequity. A walk through any of Europe’s major tourist destinations far from resembles pre-pandemic times. Italy has been classifying regions according to infection rates, and while the country has done fairly well compared to at the start of the pandemic in 2020, everyone is cognizant that regions can relatively quickly turn from white (low risk) to yellow, orange, or even red. In many parts of Italy, mask-wearing in outside spaces has again become mandatory. Austria will be the first EU country to introduce mandatory vaccinations starting in February. Those who refuse to be vaccinated will be subject to fines. In late December, the country’s parliament extended its festive season lockdown for the unvaccinated until the second week of January 2022.
Other EU countries have also adopted, or are in the process of adopting, partial mandatory vaccination rules (for example, for health workers and teachers), or have de facto limited participation in the public domain, including means of transport, to vaccinated persons and, in some cases, an additional PCR test. To enter Switzerland for instance, PCR tests are obligatory, including for vaccinated and recovered travelers. In some Swiss regions, persons crossing the border from neighboring regions were exempt from that rule when it was introduced at the end of last year, unless they traveled by air, which has left travelers without PCR tests stranded at airports.
The complexity of the regulations, and the fact that rules (need to) change in line with the development of the virus, as well as the significant cost of PCR tests, are among the factors that explain why, even if travel is possible, it is severely constrained or disincentivized. While, unlike a year ago, vaccinations are widely available today across the EU and have been proven to reduce the risk of infection considerably, in some countries, uptake has remained very low. In Slovakia, for instance, vaccination rates are below 25%. Not all who resist vaccination in Europe are categorical anti-vaxxers. Instead, a significant proportion of Europeans remains skeptical about m-RNA vaccines and would prefer traditional ones. This means that, in combination with new emerging Covid variants, for which less is known on how current vaccines affect the spread of the virus, the pandemic and reduced mobility are here to stay.
Studies have shown that travel restrictions do play a role in containing the spread of the virus since, no matter the precautions and controls in place, the volume of travelers also impacts the ability to assess health documentation effectively. So, while they are certainly not the silver bullet to stop the pandemic, travel restrictions can be one tool in combating the virus, depending on the when and the how of policy implementation. As the examples above show, a major problem is that measures remain uncoordinated across Europe; uniform standards and procedures are lacking. Changing requirements are not easy for travelers to track. Most of all, as the International Organization for Migration has pointed out, governments need to develop improved, evidence-based approaches to border management. As the Migration Policy Institute highlights, borders should be seen as a point of control rather than a stop point, not least because the political and economic costs of halting international mobility are enormous.
The revival of tourism in the past year has been a key factor for economic recovery and will remain so in 2022. Moreover, given continuous and persistent labor force shortages, the strengthening of labor mobility is another relevant factor for strengthening the EU’s economy. Cross-border workers are especially important in terms of international remittances. Salary transfers of those who work in Switzerland and reside in France and Germany make the latter two countries the biggest recipients of remittances from abroad in the region, in absolute numbers.
The recent formation of a new government in Germany, one of Europe’s most important economies, matters too when it comes to labor mobility. The new government, composed of Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens, will introduce a point system for labor market migrants. What this system will look like and how it is implemented could play an important role in the growth of the German economy. Moreover, the newly formed coalition has already announced that it is reducing the legal requirement for citizenship from eight to five years and intends to lower thresholds for domestic permanent residence permits from five years to three.
With it being unlikely that the pandemic will end anytime soon, what is certain is that Covid-19 has altered the dynamics of mobility and labor migration in some sectors in the long term. The pandemic has significantly accelerated the move to automation and artificial intelligence in key sectors such as agriculture and social care and will continue to do so in 2022 and beyond. In the months to come, unlimited international travel, which has always been a privilege for some, especially in the global north, will still not be taken for granted, even by those with “strong passports”.
Last but not least, a crucial issue not to be overshadowed by the pandemic is climate change. While they may have had less impact on international movement on the continent to date, climate-induced disasters have notably driven internal displacements, also within EU countries. According to the 2021 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s Global Report on Internal Displacement, disasters led to 234,000 displacements in Europe and Central Asia in 2020. In 2021, Europe witnessed a series of disasters including heavy flooding, which displaced 2,300 people in Belgium.
The safe revival of mobility and the reduction of forced displacement will certainly remain important points on the agenda of Europe’s decision-makers in 2022.