Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia opened their borders to each other at the stroke of midnight, creating the first “travel bubble” within the European Union in a bid to jump-start economies broken down by the coronavirus pandemic.
A dozen Estonian border guards removed all signs directing vehicles to stop at the border and huddled together at the roadside for cake and coffee.
Citizens and residents of the three generally sparsely populated Baltic nations are now free to travel within the region, though anyone entering from outside will need to self-isolate for 14 days.
“The Baltic Travel Bubble is an opportunity for businesses to reopen, and a glimmer of hope for the people that life is getting back to normal,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said in a statement.
The Baltic neighbours opened as the EU executive seeks to coax the 27 member states to reopen internal borders and restart wider travel, albeit with safety measures such as requiring people to wear face masks on airplanes.
New coronavirus infections in the three Baltic republics have slowed to a trickle with none of the countries reporting more than seven new cases on Wednesday. Authorities have loosened lockdowns since late April.
The region as a whole has recorded fewer than 150 deaths from the disease – far below individual larger euro zone countries such as Italy, Spain, France or Germany.
“There is no reason to fear that opening the border will cause the spread of the virus,” Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme said.
Travel restrictions were eased between Finland and Estonia, as well as between Poland and Lithuania this week but only for those on the move for business or education.
But neither Poland nor Finland are rushing join the full “travel union” with their Baltic neighbours as yet, despite an invitation to do so.
“At first glance, I think that, for instance, Poland and Finland would be logical and potentially good candidates,” Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said.
Poland and Finland have also reported relatively low numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths.