Free movement between Czechia, Austria and Hungary restored

Photo: ČTK / Václav Pancer

Borders between the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary opened up at noon on Friday, adding a further three countries to the already existing free movement arrangements which have been in place with Slovakia since Thursday. Travel restrictions from the Czech side with Germany have also been partly lifted.

Photo: ČTK / Václav Pancer

Igor Matovič and Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK / Ondřej Deml
The government’s original plan was to open up borders with the Czech Republic’s neighbours in mid-June. However, this week has seen that timeline turned upside down.

The first hint came on Wednesday morning, during the first visit of Slovak Premier Igor Matovič to Prague, where he and his Czech counterpart Andrej Babiš announced that free movement between the two states would be completely restored on Thursday.

This news was followed shortly by Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg’s announcement that his country would re-establish free movement with all of its neighbours, except Italy.

That same day, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček tweeted that he would ask the government to go ahead and implement the new travel arrangements as delineated in the country’s European travel map earlier that week.

Photo: ČTK / Václav Šálek
His call was heard and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš called an extraordinary government meeting for Friday morning. At the subsequent press conference, Petříček announced the new travel arrangements.

“Starting from 12pm today, border movement with Austria and Slovakia will be completely open. There will also be the possibility of traveling freely to Hungary.

“I would just like to add that, in the case of Germany, there is a slight adjustment to current border-crossing arrangements from our side. I would recommend to our citizens that they follow the conditions that Germany has in place.”

Tomáš Petříček,  photo: ČTK / Michal Krumphanzl
That slight adjustment concerns the necessity of having a negative COVID-19 test to cross the Czech-German border, which has now been scrapped. However, Foreign Minister Petříček has tweeted that negotiations with his German counterpart Heiko Maas are still ongoing, so it is possible that further easing of travel restrictions will come before June 15.

Meanwhile, some Czechs have begun joking that Austria-Hungary is being restored, noting that the states where free movement is currently possible made up the core of the Habsburg Empire.

With Poland, the Czech Republic’s neighbour to the north-east, the situation remains unchanged. According to Foreign Minister Petříček, Warsaw has not even indicated a date when it would like to open its borders. Those Czechs who have residency in Poland, or work there, are among the few exceptions to the otherwise closed border system.

Photo: ČTK / Václav Pancer
The acceleration in the easing of travel is not just in the interests of people’s holiday plans, but business too, Mr Petříček said.

“For us it is also important to restore economic activity to the border regions. The prime minister visited the Karlovy Vary Region yesterday, which belongs to those most affected by the fall in travel and cross-border tourism. We would like to change that.”

For other EU states, the Czech government’s colour-zone travel map, unveiled on Monday, remains an indicator of how the lifting of travel restrictions may proceed on the future.

As far as extra-EU travel is concerned, union member states are set to discuss the question in mid-June. Mr Petříček said he believes there is a possibility of borders opening around that date with some states regarded as “safe”, for example Israel, or South Korea.

Map of “safe” versus “high-risk” destinations  (red: high-risk,  yellow: medium-risk,  green: low-risk),  source: Czech Radio