Closed Borders Within Europe Unleash Congestion and Chaos

BUDAPEST — European leaders’ decision to fight the spread of the coronavirus by closing land borders proudly thrown open 25 years ago has left drivers angry, goods stranded and traffic backed up for miles across the heart of a continent used to letting its residents pass through with virtually no checks.

The pledge that the movement of goods would not be interrupted by the measures appeared to be failing badly on Wednesday, especially in Hungary, the landlocked nation that has suddenly become a bottleneck in Europe. Prime Minister Viktor Orban carried through with his promise on Monday to close the borders to all foreign nationals — leaving road travelers stranded and fuming.

After many international airlines cut flights and the United States banned travel from most of Europe, plans were thrown into disarray and airports became scenes of panic and confusion. A similar scene has been playing out for days on a larger scale on European roads.

Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbians and Ukrainians on either side of the main Austria-Hungary crossing have left their cars and sat on the main road, preventing any vehicles from crossing in either direction in an effort to pressure the authorities to open the crossing.

Truckers trying to transport goods to and from nations like Poland and Germany were enduring 30-hour waits. Slovaks working in Hungary were left with no sense of when they would be able to cross back home because of backups at the Hungary-Slovakia border.

“We haven’t moved a single meter since 8 a.m.,” said Janos Fenyvesi, 68, a truck driver from Hungary who had been sitting in traffic on the Austrian side of the border since Tuesday afternoon.

He was pulling freight from Switzerland to Nyiregyhaza, in eastern Hungary, when his trip was brought to an abrupt stop about 16 miles from the Austria-Hungary border crossing.

“I don’t understand why the Austrian police haven’t removed these people from the freeway,” said Mr. Fenyvesi, adding that a trip that would normally have taken him two to three days may take twice as long. “These Romanians are not respecting the laws of Austria.”

Free movement of goods and people is a principle at the heart of the European Union, and a week ago, countries including Germany had derided President Trump’s decision to close the American borders to most of Europe. But as the number of infections has climbed worldwide — it was more than 200,000 by Wednesday — individual members of the 26 nations belonging to the borderless Schengen Agreement began throwing up controls and turning back nonresidents and others who were not able to prove a need to enter the countries.

Mr. Orban, who has portrayed Hungary as a historical bulwark of European Christian civilization, has long taken an especially hard line against asylum seekers and cracked down on migrants, closing the country’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia in 2015.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, the Hungarian leader and his allies have seized on the illness’s presence on the continent and linked it to migration. Hungary has also restricted access to asylum seekers at transit zones along the country’s southern border.

By midday on Wednesday, however, the protesters’ strategy appeared to have worked. Karl Nehammer, Austria’s interior minister, who had been consulting with his counterpart in Hungary since Tuesday to find a solution, announced that Hungary had reopened its border in an effort to ease the crunch.

“E.U. citizens have to be allowed to return to their countries, and we must ensure that the traffic east of Vienna is able to flow,” Mr. Nehammer said.

The Hungarian authorities urged its own citizens to use alternative border crossings. They also opened what it called a “humanitarian corridor” overnight Tuesday to allow Romanians to pass through Hungary on their way home, but the move did little to resolve the traffic jam.

The chaos from internal border closings in Europe rippled out across the continent in ways large and small.

Images from the Austrian side of the border early Wednesday showed dozens of people standing and sitting along the concrete barriers that divide the traffic lanes; the highway resembled a giant parking lot.

In Austria, the police said that traffic had backed up more than 20 miles toward Vienna, hindering movement within the country.

Slovakia, Hungary’s neighbor to the north, also reported traffic backups stretching for miles, raising concerns about whether the country would be able to maintain supplies of critical goods. Slovakia imports more than 50 percent of its food from abroad.

“We are very worried not just about our own existence, but about the work of all suppliers who are keeping this country running,“ Pavol Jancovic, president of a truck drivers’ alliance, told reporters on Tuesday.

The Slovak police said they were trying to pull trucks with live animals, groceries and medicine from the traffic jam around the capital, Bratislava, which is close to the border with Austria, to help them cross more quickly.

Congestion has also stymied travel between Germany and Poland, where the authorities warned that trucks faced waits of four to 30 hours, after the Polish government closed the country’s borders on Sunday.

The move stalled traffic along all three major highways connecting Germany and Poland, according to Katharina Burkardt, a spokeswoman for the ministry of traffic in the German state of Brandenburg.

On Tuesday, some German supermarkets told customers they could not guarantee that empty shelves would be restocked regularly, as there was no telling if deliveries would be able to make it through.

“We are calling on all citizens to avoid using the highways if at all possible so that trucks transporting goods and medicines can get through,” Ms. Burkardt said.

Polish border officials blamed frustrated truckers for blocking the road on the German side of the border Tuesday afternoon, making it difficult for Poles trying to return homes.

“There was one more incident of this kind today, but the situation has already been resolved,” a spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard, Maj. Joanna Konieczniak, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Many truckers are angry that passenger vehicle traffic is faster than truck traffic, and they act out.”

Later on Wednesday, Polish officials agreed to open four more crossings to vehicles in an effort to ease the traffic jam and ensure that cargo could get through.

In Spain, where the border closure came into force at midnight on Monday, no such confusion was recorded and trucks were able to cross normally, José Ángel González, a director of the national police, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

He added that the police had checked about 1,500 vehicles and detained two people: one for disobeying the rules and another because the driver had an arrest warrant.

Benjamin Novak reported from Budapest, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin. Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw; Miroslava Germanova from Bratislava, Slovakia; and Raphael Minder from Madrid.


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