Brussels - Tough restrictions at Germany's borders are to be extended by eight more days, an Interior Ministry spokesperson said, a move likely to anger the European Commission, which has called the pandemic response measures disproportionate and unjustified.
"Areas of variant of concern"
Border restrictions banning the vast majority of people from entering from the Czech Republic and the Austrian state of Tyrol are to now remain in place until March 3, the German official has confirmed.
Those two neighbouring regions were added to a list of "areas of variant of concern" on February 14, together with Slovakia, further to the east. The Interior Ministry had initially agreed to keep the restrictions in place at German land borders for 10 days.
There are exceptions to the rules for those considered key workers, including lorry drivers bringing goods into the country, although they must register online to enter and present a negative coronavirus test no more than 48 hours old.
The measures recently led to travel chaos on Czech motorways leading up to the German border, as authorities struggled to ensure all hauliers had the required test certificate to enter.
Less restrictive measures?
The European Commission complained in a letter to Michael Clauss, Germany's ambassador to Brussels, that the measures were disproportionate and unjustified.
"We believe that the objective justifiably pursued by Germany – the protection of public health during a pandemic – could be attained by less restrictive measures," the European Union's executive body wrote.
The letter, seen by dpa, gives Germany 10 days to respond.
In theory, the dispute could lead to legal action against the member state, although this is considered unlikely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus infection rate
A conference to discuss border measures
Similar letters have been sent to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, and Sweden, whose border restrictions have also met with disapproval in Brussels.
At the commission's request, the member states' ministers for European affairs have conducted a conference to discuss border measures.
German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth said that the situation at the Czech-German and Tyrolean-German border had calmed significantly after close consultations.
"I first of all reject the accusation that we didn't stick to EU law," Roth said, adding that Germany's actions were in line with Schengen rules.
"I have made it clear to [our partners] that we want to get rid of this border control regime as soon as possible," he told reporters.
The dispute over border closures will be the subject of a video conference among EU heads of state and government.
A framework for travel within the EU
The fight against the pandemic is "challenging due to the emergence of new variants and the need to strike the right balance between restrictions and the smooth flow of goods and services in the single market," wrote EU Council President Charles Michel in his invitation.
"Restrictive measures on non-essential travel may still be needed to contain the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, the flow of goods and services in the single market, as well as the role played by the green lanes, remain essential," Michel has written.
Brussels is pushing for EU nations to stick to a framework for travel within the bloc agreed just a few weeks ago.
This is based on a map of the EU in which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) highlights problem zones using a traffic-light system.
Citing the ECDC's latest risk assessment, the commission noted that a "large proportion" of European cases with the B1351 coronavirus strain first identified in South Africa have come from Tyrol.
However, it argued that no such cases and comparatively few cases attributed to the B117 mutation from Britain had been reported in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
"We would therefore ask you to provide us with more information as to which criteria and information were used when designating Czechia and Slovakia as 'areas of variant of concern,'" the letter said.