/Green zones: A safe path towards free movement and a lasting recovery

Green zones: A safe path towards free movement and a lasting recovery

Editors’ note: This is an update of a VoxEU column originally published on 30 April 2020 (jump to the original column here)

Is Europe finally rising to the challenge of Covid-19? On 13 October, EU member states agreed on common criteria to determine the epidemiological situation of each region and to implement non-discriminatory travel restrictions (Council of the European Union 2020). The plan, which agrees in its key aspects with the green-zoning proposal we circulated to the European Commission and several member states in early May (Oliu-Barton and Pradelski 2020a), is an important step. First, it harmonises the widespread use of colour codes on a regional, rather than national, level. A green label indicates that the virus is under control. Second, travel between green zones is allowed, while travel to and from red zones may be restricted by, for example, a negative test or a quarantine. The latter has been agreed to be non-discriminatory between regions or states. Nevertheless, the plan fails to define common mobility restrictions to and from red zones and thus may not protect green zones sufficiently. 

The lack of a joint European response to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to widespread criticism, questioning two fundamental values of the European project: the freedom of movement and the principle of non-discrimination. At the outset of the pandemic, most countries closed their borders without warning or cooperation, ultimately leading to the halt of almost all cross-border movement. Subsequently, the EU implemented its first common action on 15 June, restoring free movement across the continent. As the resurgence of the virus became apparent, unilateral actions again dominated policies, with several countries introducing quarantines for incoming travellers. The latter have often been perceived to be as much politically and economically motivated as based on objective epidemiological criteria. In July, we reiterated our message to the Commission: the uncontrolled restoration of free movement has neglected the reality that the virus was still actively circulating in several European regions; green-zoning would control the spread of the virus while gradually restoring social and economic activity. This strategy is non-discriminatory and restores free movement without endangering public health. 

With European green-zoning finally being adopted, it is urgent to recall that zoning is not just about stringent measures in red zones, but also about harmonised mobility restrictions between red and green zones. Without the latter, the distinction between zones becomes a weak policy tool. The dramatic experience from the summer of 2020 has shown us how going from green to red is just a matter of time as the virus literally rolled across the continent. The reintroduction of the virus to green zones has put the progress made into jeopardy and ultimately risks renewed nationwide lockdowns. 

To illustrate the impact of mobility during the pandemic, consider regions with opposing epidemiological situations: red zones with a particularly high incidence of the virus (for example, London, Paris, or Madrid), and green zones (for example, Crete, Calabria, or Kiel). In the absence of restrictions, a predictable number of importations can be expected as travellers move from the former to the latter. Complicating the situation, people from many places may get infected while travelling to a green zone and thus export the virus to yet other green zones. Consequently, all of Europe might become red. 

Figure 1 The ECDC coloured map indicating the varying epidemiological situation of European regions (status on 16 October 2020)

Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

To avoid this catastrophic scenario, reducing the mobility from red to green zones is a powerful measure if effectively implemented. Our increased understanding of how the virus spreads allows for targeted restrictions rather than blanket travel bans, thus reducing the overall economic and personal hardship from such restrictions. Consequently, red zones and disproportionately affected industries, notably the tourism and transport sectors, should be compensated. Some Länder in Germany, for example, have recently introduced a rule that travellers from red zones are not allowed to stay in hotels in other zones across the country. 

Reducing mobility from red to green zones has been successfully used during the second wave in various countries, such as China and Australia. In the latter, by limiting travel to and from the states of Victoria and Queensland (two red zones), the other four states have been spared from the second wave. This is the case as minimising mobility reduces the overall number of re-importations into green zones, and thus the likelihood that community transmission starts over again – that is, virus transmission that cannot be traced back to a new importation. This is particularly true for SARS-CoV-2, which has a high clustering coefficient – while around 75% of infected individuals do not transmit the virus to anybody, 10% of virus carriers are responsible for 80% of total transmissions, the so-called super-spreaders (Liu et al. 2020). Thus, most infections do not lead to large transmission chains. Next to local public health measures to avoid super-spreading events, minimising the number of re-importations is the key to achieve close to zero community transmission. Protecting green zones keeps the most vulnerable people who live in these zones safe. Further, allowing green zones to return to economic and social activity is essential to ensure social cohesion and economic stability. Finally, zoning can also provide the framework for future policy measures, notably for vaccination (Oliu-Barton and Pradelski, 2020b). To minimise the impact of the virus, the epidemiological situation of a zone should factor in prioritising the distribution of vaccine between and within zones.

We remain firmly of the belief that a European green-zoning strategy is a unique opportunity for the EU to show its strength by creating a win-win situation for all countries. If implemented in conjunction with other public health measures, zoning can curb the spread of the virus while allowing for lasting economic recovery. This would be in contrast to the short-lived easing of restrictions during summer 2020. The EU has awoken from its paralysis. What remains to be seen is whether its member states will act and operationalise the joint plan.


Council of the European Union (2020), “A coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Interinstitutional File: 2020/0256(NLE), 13 October.

Liu, Y, R M Eggo and A J Kucharski (2020), “Secondary attack rate and superspreading events for SARS-CoV-2”, Lancet 395(10227): e47. 

Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski (2020a), “Green-zone travelling: A pan-European strategy to save tourism”, Esade Centre for Economic Policy & Political Economy, Policy insight No. 10, 4 May.

Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski (2020b), “A vaccination policy for green zones”, VoxEU.org, 2 October.


Original column (published on 30 April 2020)

Original teaser: The tourism industry has already been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a ‘cancellation’ of the summer season would further push many European countries towards an unprecedented economic crisis. This column proposes to elevate the authors’ recently proposed zoning approach to the pan-European level. Allowing ‘green bridges’ to exist between regions where the virus is under control – regardless of whether the latter are in the same country – could help save the tourism sector, the economic viability of several European countries, and probably also the balance within the European Union. 

The tourism industry has already been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a literal cancellation of the summer season would further push many European countries towards an unprecedented economic crisis. As most countries are still struggling to contain the virus, as well as with their respective exit strategies, we are heading towards a summer during which international travel might be, if not forbidden, highly discouraged. Such travel restrictions will additionally damage the already weakened economies of Europe’s southern countries, such as Croatia, Spain, or Italy, because they rely on tourism more heavily than the northern countries. Beyond the direct effects on their GDP, this could also serve to weaken the balance within the EU and endanger its future.

How to exit from the Covid-19 lockdown measures is the most pressing question on the policy agendas of all major European countries. France, Italy, and Spain have already announced a regional approach whereby policies may vary from one territory to another, depending on their current situation with respect to Covid-19. Their exit strategy relies on disconnecting regions by forbidding unnecessary travel between them. This approach – which, in France and Spain was partly based on our proposal (Oliu-Barton et al. 2020) – labels each region as either red (virus not under control) or green (virus under control) in order to (1) avoid the spread of the virus throughout the territory, and (2) allow economic activity to restart on a more local level as soon as it is safe to do so (Philippe 2020, Government of Spain 2020). In addition, some European countries have started to discuss bilateral corridors to allow for limited tourist travel between two countries during the holiday season (Harper 2020). 

We propose that the zoning approach is elevated to the pan-European level. Suppose, for example, that Bavaria, a German state, and Crete, a Greek island, are deemed safe (i.e. that they receive the green label from a common EU authority). We argue that it is safe to travel between two such green zones, just as it is safe to travel between two green zones in the same country. Allowing ‘bridges’ to exist between green zones (or regions), regardless of whether the zones are in the same country, may help save the tourism sector and, most likely, the wider economic viability of several European countries. 

Pan-European green-bridging

Building on our work in Oliu-Barton et al. (2020b), we propose the following strategy which should be orchestrated on the European level:

1. Divide each country into geographic areas (e.g. regions, provinces, or departments).

2. Label each of these areas as either red or green depending on whether the virus is under control or not.

3. Gradually add ‘green bridges’ between pairs of green areas so that travelling between them would be allowed.

Our proposed strategy has the following sanitary, economic, and political advantages:

Controlling the virus

By differentiating between red and green zones, the spread of the virus across the entire territory is minimised. This is the case because travel to and from red zones would be limited to necessary travel only – such as that by key workers – and rigid testing routines would be implemented at borders between red and green zones.

Reducing the economic burden

We focus on the tourism sector as it likely would benefit the most from green bridging. It is the largest sector in several European countries, accounting for 26% of employment and 25-30% of GDP in Greece, 13% of employment and more than 20% of GDP in Croatia, and 11% of employment and 14% of GDP in Spain.  Furthermore, tourism activity is highest over summer months, which are upcoming – the intra-EU inbound tourism trips from June to October account for 79% of the annual flow in Croatia, 78% in Greece, and 60% in Italy (Eurostat 2019). Consequently, enabling pan-European tourism over the summer months is probably the single most important determinant for the economic survival of several European countries. In addition, Baldwin and Evenett (2020) argue that insular policies will fail to foster economic recovery across sectors. Finally, returning to a more regional scale, we note that tourism accounts for 47% of Crete’s economy and 45% of the Spanish island of Mallorca’s economy.1 This highlights the importance of green-bridging between regions.

Fostering community and the European identity

Giving the opportunity for regions to ‘determine their own fortunes’ would create a stronger incentive for communities to follow regulations and actively contribute to the control of the Covid-19 outbreak. Nationalistic considerations thus become less important and people’s identification with the European project has the potential to increase, as green bridges are built between regions irrespective of which country they belong to. 

The role of the European Union 

The role of the EU during the Covid-19 pandemic has repeatedly been questioned as a result of slow reactions and little coordination in the early stage of the outbreak (Georgiou 2020). By showing definitive leadership, the European Commission should rise to this opportunity. Its action could define the future of several European countries and prevent the entire European project from failing. Our ‘green-zoning’ approach can only be orchestrated on a pan-European level. This is not a slogan but an important legal predicament because it entitles the Commission to take action under the Treaty of the European Union, Article 5 §3:

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

With this competence, the Commission should lead the implementation of steps 1–3 outlined above. In particular, we foresee the importance of: 

  • Zoning. The delimitation of the zones should not pose a major political obstacle because our approach builds on divisions that have already been implemented in several European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain. 
  • Testing. To ensure a consistent implementation of the red and green labelling, a workforce attached to the European Commission should execute independent testing. In particular, this independent testing should focus on areas that have recently applied for a green label and special effort should be put into areas that heavily rely on summer tourism.
  • Green labels. Green labels must be administered by a common EU authority in order to ensure that the meaning of this label does not vary from country to country. Otherwise, an imbalance in health risks and economic benefits may arise. 
  • Green bridges. To maximise the economic impact while also distributing benefits between different countries and regions, the allocation of bridges needs to be led by the Commission. 

A prosperous future in a unified Europe

In summary, we believe that the green-zoning approach – which has already been implemented at the sovereign level by many European countries – could reap even greater benefits when used on a pan-European scale. By focusing on the tourism industry, we outline the importance of elevating the exit strategy from the Covid-19 pandemic to the European level. We firmly believe that pan-European green-zoning is a unique opportunity for the EU to show its strength by creating a win-win situation for all countries and not allowing the summer season to fall victim to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Baldwin, R, and S J Evenett (2020), COVID-19 and Trade Policy: Why Turning Inward Won’t Work, a VoxEU.org eBook, CEPR Press.

Eurostat (2019), “Tourism statistics – intra-EU tourism flows”. 

Georgiou A (2020), “Is the European Union failing the viability test?”, VoxEU.org, 23 April.

Harper J (2020), “Czechs float ‘corona corridor’ lifeline for Croatian tourism”, Deutsche Welle, 22 April.

Ikkos A and S Koutsos (2019) “The contribution of Tourism in the Greek economy in 2018”, Institute of the Greek Tourism Confederation.

Oliu-Barton, M, B S R Pradelski and L Attia (2020a), “Green zones: A proposal to exit the COVID-19 lockdown”, VoxEU.org, 25 April.

Oliu-Barton, M, B S R Pradelski and  L Attia (2020b), “Exit strategy: from self-confinement to green zones”, ESADE—Centre for Economic Policy & Political Economy, Policy insight No. 6, April.

Orsini K and V Ostojić (2018), “Croatia’s Tourism Industry: Beyond the Sun and Sea”, European Commission, Economic Brief 36, March.

Philipp, E (2020), “Premier ministre Présentation de la stratégie nationale de déconfinement”, 30 April.

Government of Spain (2020), “Plan de desescalada”, 28 April (in Spanish).

WTTC – World Travel & Tourism Council (2020), “Travel & Tourism: Economic impact 2020”, 30 April. 


1 Employment data from Eurostat (2019). GDP data for direct and indirect contribution to tourism from  Ikkos and Koutsos (2019) for Greece, (Orsini and Ostojić (2018) for Croatia, and WTTC (2019) for Spain.

Original Source