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World News

Hungary exempts some visitors from border lockdown, riles EU

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary has decided to exempt tourists visiting from three neighbouring states from a lockdown of its borders that took effect on Tuesday, provided they test negative for COVID-19 beforehand, prompting a rebuke from the European Commission.

FILE PHOTO: People bike on the Chain Bridge during a curfew restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Budapest, Hungary, March 28, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The EU executive said Hungary’s move to admit visitors from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia but not from other EU member states amounted to discrimination and was illegal.

Hungary said last week it would close its borders to foreigners from Tuesday to curb a rise in coronavirus cases. Returning Hungarian citizens can leave a 14-day quarantine only if they provide two negative COVID tests.

However, after talks with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban agreed to let Czech visitors who have already booked holidays in Hungary for September enter the country, the Foreign Ministry said.

The easing was subsequently extended to Poland and Slovakia, the ministry said in a statement. Visitors coming to Hungary have to produce a negative COVID test not older than five days, which Budapest says represents sufficient safety guarantees.

The EU Commission in Brussels said Hungary’s decision clashed with the bloc’s rules on free travel.

“Any measures that do not comply with those fundamental principles of EU law should of course be immediately retracted,” European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said, adding he would raise the matter with Budapest.

Orban’s nationalist government, in power since 2010, has often been at odds with Brussels over what the EU and his critics in Hungary say is an erosion of the rule of law and the independence of the media and judiciary.

As of Tuesday, Hungary had reported 6,257 coronavirus cases with 616 deaths. The number of new cases has surged in recent days, just as Hungary prepares to start a new school year.

Its economy shrank by 13.6% year-on-year in the April-June period this year due to the pandemic and the lockdown it prompted. Authorities eased the lockdown measures in May.

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Gareth Jones

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