In reimposing travel curbs on Americans, the European Union is sending a message to the U.S. that is as much about diplomacy as it is about epidemiology.

Sure, there is data to nominally support the decision. A surge in cases driven by the delta variant’s spread has put the U.S. well beyond the recommended limits for nonessential travel to the EU.

There have been 588 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the two weeks ending Aug. 22, versus the guideline of 75. The U.S. was classified as “high-risk” by Germany back on Aug. 15.

But the build-up to this decision has been brewing all summer long, mirroring the kind of trans-Atlantic diplomatic to-and-fro seen in trade disputes. Officials in Brussels and member states have been waiting months for “reciprocity” from the Biden administration after the EU lifted curbs on the U.S. in June, just in time for the summer.

That reciprocity never came. A U.S. travel ban on Europeans remains in place, almost 600 days after it was introduced in March 2020. This has prompted EU exasperation and a sense that a different outcome might have been possible.

To see a chance for freer travel shut down is pretty disheartening. Families remain separated. And just as importantly, tourism is a big money-spinner for Europe, especially the south. The stock-market reaction — a Standard & Poor’s index of the nine largest U.S. airlines dropping 3% Monday afternoon — points to a delayed recovery for a tourism industry that’s still reeling from its worst year on record.

Yet at the same time, Europeans have been more pragmatic than their American ally. These latest curbs are nonbinding recommendations that will likely only affect the unvaccinated. The decision on who to let in and what restrictions to impose is taken at the national government level.

Compare that with the U.S. ban on most travelers from the U.K. and around two dozen European countries. The restrictions have survived the change of administration from Trump to Biden, and endured even as the EU’s pandemic management has begun to outshine America’s. European countries now occupy almost all top 10 positions of Bloomberg’s COVID-19 resilience index, while the U.S. languishes at No. 25.

For those on my side of the Atlantic who have fallen victim to the U.S. ban, it is a good thing to see Europe show some teeth on this issue.

U.S.-based Brookings Institution fellow Celia Belin has written forcefully about her own experience of a ban she calls “cruel.” She is a nonimmigrant visa holder. Visiting her family in France would have meant the risk of not being let back into the U.S. to pursue her career. And the ban has more than a few inconsistencies, she writes. One of the ways around it is to travel via countries including Turkey, where cases have outpaced the EU’s.

But this is more than a trans-Atlantic story. Travel bans are increasingly looking more like exercises in saving face than saving lives. Consider the way the U.K. specifically targeted France with extended travel restrictions earlier this summer, a move that reeked of cynicism considering the lack of data to justify it.

Elsewhere, quarantine policies intended to protect people drift too easily into draconian excess. Even if experts say restricting travel can help at specific points in an epidemic, in practice they have proven mistimed and leaky.

Hopefully, the latest turn of events will prompt more soul-searching over the cost of travel restrictions in a crisis that has already geographically divided the jabs and the jab-nots along North and South. The real vaccination gap is between the rich world and developing countries, with the 52 least wealthy places in the world boasting 20.5% of the planet’s population but only 2.9% of its vaccines.

Otherwise, the long list of European grudges against Biden’s “America First” twitches — Afghanistan, Big Tech, China — is about to get longer.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France.

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