Under normal circumstances, Alberto Pereira would return to Portugal via the International Friendship Bridge, which launches over the Minho River to connect Tomiño to Vila Nova de Cerveira. With this forbidden route, the driver was forced on Sunday to travel another 30 kilometers: he crossed the same river that bathes the two countries, but by the International Bridge, entering Tui and leaving in Valença, already on the A3. There, he found a control operation on the Portuguese border, but ignored it: “It’s normal. I walk everywhere and there are controls all over the European continent. ” Quiet, he showed the necessary documentation to the agents of the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF) and followed the instructions of the military of the National Republican Guard (GNR) seconded for the job.
Elements of the Portuguese authorities will be in that place “24 hours a day, every day” until 23:59 on 14 February, the date for the end of the new state of emergency, which came into force at midnight on Sunday and which determined the replacement border control. On the Spanish border side, control is done by the National Police. It is one of the eight border points permanently open in Portugal; in the region, it is the only one.
If Alberto Pereira was unable to go home via the International Friendship Bridge, others could not (and will not) be able to do so through the connection between Melgaço and Arbo and the Eiffel Bridge, also in Valença: these three access points are closed for the time being . On the other hand, the connection between Monção and Salvaterra do Miño will only be open between 7 am and 9 am and 6 pm and 8 pm on weekdays.
This Sunday, on both the Spanish and Portuguese sides, there were no lines to fill the kilometers of the International Bridge. But the scenario will not be the same from Monday to Friday: “We are currently six soldiers, but that number will be adjusted to the flow of traffic. There may be days when we are more, as in the dawn of this Monday. People are back to work, so we are waiting for traffic to increase, ”explained Captain Ivo Morais, of the GNR territorial post in Valença. On the SEF side, the number of elements expected “will be around four,” said one of the agents.
A “ignorance of the local reality”
The increase in traffic at the only permanent access point to Galicia in Alto Minho over the next few days is not just a perspective of the Portuguese authorities. For the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) of the Rio Minho, chaired by Fernando Nogueira, the closure of three bridges over the River Minho will contribute to the funneling of traffic in that place and will concentrate “hundreds or thousands more people in endless traffic queues ”. The mayor of Vila Nova de Cerveira also says that the Government’s decision shows “a lack of knowledge of the local reality”. “If these bridges exist, it is because they are necessary. There is a flow of 6000 workers daily. Bringing them to a single crossing point will be worse and will further enhance contacts and contagions ”, says the mayor to the PUBLIC.
In addition, Fernando Nogueira notes that, in the case of cross-border workers, the question of time difference still weighs: “At 7 am it is 8 am in Spain. There are some Portuguese who at 8am already have to be working there. ” This limitation will also be noted in the connection from Monção to Salvaterra do Miño, with limited hours. “ The schedule does not serve anyone. It will serve very few people. There is a lack of common sense, ”says António Barbosa, president of that municipality. In equal measure, Manuel Lopes, Mayor of Valença, believes that these restrictions “will not do more than was implemented”. “[O Governo] he has no idea what the territory is ”, he points out.
The concerns extend to the mayors of several municipalities in the Alto Minho – especially those who govern the territories with direct connection to Spain. Cross-border workers in Melgaço who used the bridge that reaches the Spanish municipality of Arbo will now have to add 40 kilometers to the route to travel to Valença (and many others on the way back). For Manoel Batista, Mayor of Melgaço, “the closure of bridges is ineffective” and “the pandemic problem does not arise”, since mobility is restricted, both on the Portuguese and Galician sides. The mayor took “a tougher than usual position” to protest the decision of the central administration: the municipality “will not provide any logistical support” to close the bridge.
“In other words, there will have to be availability of GNR men who could be there daily”, comments the Mayor of Caminha, Miguel Alves. Although there was no bridge in that municipality, the connection to Spanish territory – more precisely, A Guarda – was made through the ferryboat; however, these trips are also suspended. And cross-border workers in the municipality (as well as those arriving from Spain) will have to travel to Valença and not to Cerveira, whose access is closer. “In the first confinement, the measures affected the economy. But the local economy is now at zero. For this reason, the victims are Portuguese and Spanish workers ”, he adds.
In spite of everything, the mayors understand that, in a moment of worsening of the pandemic situation, the measures have to be “dramatic”. Even so, José Maria Costa, Mayor of Viana do Castelo, hopes to see this situation “rectified”. It is that during the first general confinement, in March 2020, the situation was identical; however, after “joint protests by the municipalities on both sides of the bank of the river Minho”, almost all the bridges, with the exception of the Eiffel, reopened.
In a statement sent to the Lusa agency, the EGTC says that the local authorities in the region “are available to collaborate with the central administration and the police authorities to find an alternative”. In the same document, it reads that “the affected municipalities will contest these closures by the legal means at their disposal, in the best interest of cross-border workers”.