Brussels – When U.S. President Donald Trump slapped a travel ban on Europe back in March to halt the spread of COVID-19, he declared it "the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a virus in modern history” — and criticized the European Union for not having acted quickly enough to do the same.
The tables have turned. Today, it’s the EU that is leaving American tourists out in the cold with its new shortlist of 14 countries deemed safe for non-essential travel. Despite Trump’s bluster, the U.S. has racked up more than double the total caseload of the EU’s 27 members, and it hasn’t made the cut. Countries including Canada, Japan and Morocco have. China will be added to the list provided it lifts its own curbs on European visitors.
While politically this will sting, it is at heart an epidemiological decision. As if to prove that flight bans aren’t actually all that effective, especially when compared to domestic measures like widespread testing and movement curbs, the United States' record in controlling the infection curve remains poor. In the two weeks to June 29, cumulative cases per 100,000 people (the EU’s preferred metric) stood at 137 in the U.S., one of the highest rates in the world. They were below 10 in France, Italy and Spain.
Still, the comfort of statistics belies the general knottiness of lifting travel restrictions in Europe, which involves coordinating 27 member states with sometimes different priorities and policies.
To start with, the approved list isn’t a law per se, but a recommendation — border controls remain the preserve of national governments. While nobody expects a country to unilaterally fling open its doors to Americans, enforcement is going to be an issue. The ban wasn’t exactly watertight in the first place, with allowances made for U.S. citizens living in the EU, Europeans living in the U.S., students and others. Countries like Ireland and Denmark aren’t even part of the common border policy. Denmark is unlikely to take a relaxed approach to tourists given it was one of the first European countries to restrict travel and impose stay-at-home measures on its people. But its exemptions include business people, au pairs and boarding-school students too.
Making matters even more confusing, travel within the EU still won’t be completely free even if the bloc has called for an end to internal border restrictions, restoring the free movement that symbolizes the unity of its single market. The truth is some EU members are keeping others at bay over their handling of the virus. That means that some nations will likely now be welcoming tourists from thousands of kilometers away while snubbing their own neighbors. Travelers from Sweden, for example, whose 14-day case rate is almost as high as the U.S.’, are restricted from freely entering countries including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Cyprus. Brits are also personae non gratae in places such as Greece, where direct flights from the U.K. and Sweden aren’t allowed until July 15. It’s not only Americans that will have to wait.
How to handle China raises other complicated issues. The country should be a shoo-in based on how few new cases it’s now reporting, but there remain questions over how it handled the outbreak and the trustworthiness of its data crunching in the past. The Europeans have managed a workaround by asking the country to lift its own restrictions on EU travelers before it can fully make its way onto the EU’s whitelist. Maybe there’s a guide here for how Trump could get the go-ahead from the EU, provided his handling of the pandemic also improves. It’s not all down to data.
For all the loopholes and muddles involved in lifting the EU’s travel restrictions, it's reassuring that it’s happening at all — you have to start somewhere. But the freedom of countries to go their own way, on top of the the World Health Organization’s warning that the pandemic is "not even close to being over,” means the unpredictability will be with us a while yet.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.