The ski slopes have become a new battleground for European leaders, who cannot agree on whether they should be closed during the Christmas holidays, as a measure to contain the expansion of covid-19, or whether they should be able to open up so as not to sink the sector economically. France, Germany and Italy are all in favour of keeping the ski resorts closed until January, but have met with opposition from Austria, which intends to open them.
France, which has closed its resorts and has asked Spain and Switzerland to follow suit. In an interview at midday on BFMTV, Prime Minister Jean Castex acknowledged that "Spain and Switzerland are not moving in this direction now, but diplomacy continues". French police will be carrying out border controls to avoid people going to other countries to ski. Paris, like Berlin, wants an agreement at European level. Catalonia, on the other had, has announced that it will open its ski resorts after the December 8th Bank Holiday.
According to some Austrian media, the pressures on chancellor Sebastian Kurz by his European counterparts has led to an intermediate solution to the conflict: the slopes will be open, but the hotels and bars will be closed. This would prevent citizens from other countries from travelling to Austria to enjoy the snow, as they would have no place to stay. In any case, the Austrian government is expected to announce measures this Wednesday.
Before Kurz's plans were leaked, French President Emmanuel Macron had announced that he would take "restrictive and dissuasive" measures to prevent French citizens from travelling abroad if they cannot ski in France. The details of the measures will be announced in the next few days, but according to the president the intention is, on the one hand, to prevent the French from going to areas where, in the opinion of the executive, there is a risk of infection, and, on the other, to avoid a "situation of imbalance" between the two countries. After a month of lockdown, France began easing restrictions this weekend in phases that will last until the end of January, and the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, announced on Thursday that during the Christmas holidays it will be possible to go to the slopes, but that the ski lifts and communal areas will have to be closed. On Tuesday Macron called for "coordination" at European level on this issue.
It is the same thing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had called for last week. She even went a step further and proposed that the European Union should impose the obligation to keep ski resorts closed until after the holidays, as will happen in Germany. Kurz responded that this was a matter in which Brussels "would not have to interfere" and the European Commission agreed with him, arguing that the Union has no competence in this area, even though it warned of the risks of lifting the restrictions too early.
In the case of Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte does not plan to authorise the opening of these facilities until 10 January: "We cannot afford it," he said. The country is currently at the height of the second wave of the pandemic: 853 people died on Tuesday from covid-19, a figure which was only reached twice in the first wave.
As far as the Catalan ski resorts are concerned, the Government has not yet taken any decision on the matter: on Friday, the Minister of Health, Alba Vergés, told El matí de Catalunya Ràdio that there is a need to "debate well" what to do with these infrastructures, but she said that the decision will be "conditioned" by what the rest of the European countries do.
Beyond Austria (where a three-week lockdown will end on Monday), the other country that worries European leaders is Switzerland: despite being at the height of the pandemic, the stations have already begun to open and most are expected to function normally by Christmas. The fact that this state is not part of the EU makes it difficult to reach an agreed solution.
A worrying precedent
At the beginning of the pandemic, the ski resort of Ischgl, located in Austria, played a key part in the spread of the virus throughout the world: thousands of people from over 40 countries were infected and then exported covid to their places of origin. Many of them filed a lawsuit against the Austrian authorities for negligence, as they considered that they had kept the resort open, despite evidence of contagion, for economic reasons. As ING economist Carsten Brzeski detailed to the Financial Times, winter sports account for around 4% of Austria's GDP and 8% of jobs during the winter months.