The French government has suspended a new rule that prevented British nationals legally resident in other EU countries from travelling through France to reach their homes, a move that caused confusion for thousands of travellers.
Border officials would “show tolerance” in order to “allow these nationals to transit through France to reach their residence in a country of the European Union after the Christmas and New Year period”, the interior ministry said in a statement. It came as Germany also relaxed rules for British visitors.
Tighter Covid travel rules introduced last week appear to allow only Britons whose primary residence is in France into the country, although EU law experts have questioned their legality.
The strict application of the no-transit rule in particular was causing difficulties for those who had gone back to the UK for the holidays “in good faith” but were now unable to return to their country of residence, the ministry acknowledged.
Some British travellers trying to reach countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium by car were turned back by French border officials in the UK on Wednesday night after Eurotunnel issued a warning about the new rule.
Eurotunnel said a French government decision this week meant that “unless they hold French residency, British citizens are now considered third country citizens and can no longer transit France by road to reach their country of residence in the EU.”
P&O Ferries issued a similar tweet, warning that “only those with French residency will be permitted to enter France”. The British embassy in Paris said last week that “UK nationals may only transit France if travelling by air.”
However, British nationals travelling through France to their homes in Belgium by the Eurostar train service have reported no problems reaching their destinations.
A French interior ministry official said earlier the country had not changed its list of “compelling” reasons enabling Britons to travel to France since new rules were introduced, but “clarified their application” by border police.
The French government announced last week that incoming travellers would require “a compelling reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated” from midnight on 11pm GMT on 17 December. “People cannot travel for tourism or professional reasons,” it said.
A list of valid “compelling reasons” allowing travellers specifically from the UK to enter France published on 16 December includes EU citizens living in France or transiting through France to reach their home in an EU member state.
It also includes third-country nationals “with a valid French or EU residence permit or long-stay visa resident in France”, as well as “British nationals … benefiting from the Brexit withdrawal agreement” (in other words, living in the EU before 31 December 2020) – but with no reference to where in the EU they are resident.
Moreover, the government’s updated list of “compelling reasons” applicable to countries on France’s Covid orange list, dated 20 December, includes “third-country residents with a valid French or EU residence permit or long-stay visa whose primary residence is in France, or who are transiting through France to reach their primary residence in an EU country”.
European law experts have questioned whether applying a no-transit rule to British residents of EU member states travelling through France breaches the Schengen Borders Code, which governs who may cross the EU’s external borders.
Since the border between France and the UK is an external border of the EU, there would be no legal basis for France to refuse to allow third-country nationals legally resident in another EU country to cross it to reach their member state of residence.
“In my view there’s a strong argument that France is in breach of the Schengen Borders Code,” said Steve Peers, professor of EU law at the University of Essex.
“The code has a public health requirement for crossing external borders, but there’s a derogation for those holding a residence permit from a member state and in transit, unless they are subject to a national entry ban of the state they are crossing.”
France’s UK-specific list of permitted “compelling reasons” for transiting through France includes passengers of any nationality spending “less than 24 hours in an international zone” of a French airport.
In principle, this implies that if and when France reapplies the no-transit rule to British nationals and it is not challenged, those resident in other EU countries will only be able to transit through France and return home by air.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The French authorities have confirmed that British nationals will face no additional restrictions while travelling through the holiday period. British nationals who are currently in the UK, but resident in the EU, will be able to return to their home through France over the New Year period without disruption. We remain in close contact with the French authorities, and will update our own travel advice with the latest information.”
Meanwhile it was announced that Germany is to ease restrictions on travel from the UK. From 11pm on 3 January, a ban preventing British tourists from travelling to the country will be lifted, according to the German embassy in London. It means that people who are fully vaccinated, or “have an important reason for travelling”, will be allowed to enter. Those who are fully vaccinated will not need a negative Covid test or need to quarantine for 14 days, the embassy said.