BRUSSELS (Reuters) – An outbreak of coronavirus in northern Italy last week has raised the alarm in the European Union over the epidemic, which until then had been mostly confined to China.
Measures to tackle the disease remain largely decided at the national level.
The EU coordinates the actions of its 27 member states but has little power to counter epidemics as states maintain exclusive competences on health measures, travel restrictions and surveillance.
Below is what the EU can and cannot do.
Most EU countries are members of the open-border Schengen area, which allows travelers and goods to cross frontiers without checks.
Governments can introduce temporary controls in the event of emergencies, such as during the 2015 migration crisis. These measures effectively limit cross-border travel and must be notified to the EU executive, the Commission. So far, no EU state has done so during the coronavirus emergency.
Many EU countries have issued travel advisories to warn against non-essential trips to affected areas, including to northern Italy.
France is currently the only EU state that has ordered a two-week quarantine for people returning from outbreak-hit areas in Italy.
There is no EU-wide advice on travel, as it remains a national competence, but the Commission said it would develop an information template for travelers to and from high-risk zones.
The EU can only urge member states to share information about the epidemic on their territory, but has no power to impose common monitoring measures.
States decide on how many tests are necessary to check the spread of the disease. Italy has conducted many more tests than other EU states, which might partly explain the higher number of cases there.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an EU agency, provides guidance on risk assessment and infection prevention.
The Commission could propose joint procurement for face masks and other protective gear to reduce risks of possible shortages.
The EU has used its budget to help prevent and contain the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.
This week the Commission announced 232 million euros ($252 million) to fight the disease at global level. Half of it will go to the World Health Organization (WHO) and 100 million will be spent on medical research for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics tools.
EU money has also been spent to repatriate EU citizens from outbreak-hit areas in China and Japan.
The Commission is likely to allow EU countries affected by the epidemic to spend more to face the emergency, exempting this spending from EU fiscal rules.
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