Biden’s ‘incomprehensible’ travel ban on European visitors widens transatlantic rift

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Last week, France became the latest European nation to issue travel restrictions on unvaccinated American visitors. While some were outraged by the decision, many Europeans believed that it was America’s only desert.

The issue for wary Europeans isn’t just the United States’ persistently high national coronavirus case numbers, or the lingering pockets of anti-vaccination sentiment that have seen an immunization front-runner become a laggard. It’s that most Europeans, vaccinated or not, have been banned from the United States since March 14, 2020: more than 550 days and counting.

The U.S. ban — which affects most European visitors, but not American citizens, permanent residents and a limited number of visa holders flying from Europe — was imposed in the early days of the pandemic under President Donald Trump. Many Europeans thought President Biden would remove the ban as soon as he took office. He didn’t. Some speculated that he might do it after visiting Brussels, or during his visit to Washington with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. This was around the same time as Britain and Europe lifted their blanket restrictions. Still, no policy change.

Even as foreign diplomats and leaders descend on New York for the U.N. General Assembly and the nation prepares to host a summit on vaccination next week, the United States has proved unwilling to relax its rules for a wider group of travelers.

“Given where we are today in terms of the delta variant both here and around the world — we are maintaining the existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told a meeting with representatives from the U.S. travel industry.

Some Europeans see no hope on the horizon for a lifting of the ban. Benjamin Haddad (Director of the Europe Center at The Atlantic Council) said that the ban is “just incomprehensible” at this stage.

With little sign of change, tensions are flaring. The Times of London recently dubbed the policy “Kafkaesque” and indicative of “political cowardice.” European diplomats are increasingly speaking out, with at least one E.U. Official cancelling a trip to the United States due to these restrictions.

The Trump administration moved to lift the travel restrictions in January, but Biden’s team quickly reinstated them. There was little controversy at the time: Vaccinations were only just beginning, a devastating winter wave of covid-19 was sweeping the United States and Europe, and many countries’ borders were closed to most American travelers anyway.

By summer, that had changed. The European Union had announced in June that it would lift restrictions against U.S. travel. This was followed by a flurry of American citizens thronging Parisian caf├ęs and Aegean beaches. Europe didn’t get its wish for reciprocity.

Administration officials pointed to a new wave of coronavirus cases in the United States, driven by the delta variant, as justification for keeping the ban intact. “Given where we are today … with the delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on July 26 — almost exactly the same language used by her colleague Zients nearly two months later.

That rationale has grown weaker as time has progressed. Many European countries are far more widely vaccinated than the United States and have seen their daily coronavirus case numbers dip as a result. The delta variant is as dominant as it is likely to get in the United States, where large pockets of unvaccinated people already provided fertile ground, and cases are far higher than in Europe.

There were never any requirements for testing and quarantine that would have stopped a delta-spreading U.S. citizen traveling back from Europe. Other countries with low vaccination rates or coronavirus outbreaks do not face U.S. travel restrictions. Some of these nations, like Serbia and Mexico, are popular stops for Europeans who wish to visit the United States.

Much of the public opposition to the restrictions has focused on the personal impact, with the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism on social media detailing accounts of divided families and missed life events, from births to deaths. The economic impacts on America are clear as well. There have been losses reported by American-owned businesses, European-owned enterprises, and tourism-reliant companies. One industry estimate for the net losses from all U.S. coronavirus travel restrictions stands at $198 million per day.

One European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid hurting ongoing negotiations, said the United States had simply “missed their moment” because of bureaucratic inertia over the summer. Some blamed the E.U. for part of this problem. This summer, the E.U. unilaterally lifted travel restrictions on Americans. Haddad stated that “I believe the Europeans were somewhat naive to expect automatically reciprocity from America.”

Now, with travel restrictions favored by Republicans and coronavirus anxiety common among Democrats, it may be politics, rather than science, that stops Biden from changing course. “If protecting Biden’s political flank is the criterion, as it may very well be, these and other border restrictions could remain frozen until 2022 U.S. midterm elections,” economist Edward Alden wrote for Foreign Policy this week.

Indeed, the U.S. travel restrictions may be more a reflection of what is happening inside American borders than outside. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the administration was debating a plan to require proof of vaccination for domestic or international air travel, but that there were concerns about travel disruption and the persistent Republican opposition to vaccine mandates.

Any concern about political backlash might be misplaced. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) tweeted last week that the policy “makes no sense” and called for vaccinated Europeans to be allowed into the United States.

Conservative groups have criticized the policy, too. The American Enterprise Institute’s Stan Veuger has dubbed the restrictions “not just bizarre and cruel, but ineffective too,” while the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke stated that Biden should immediately end this policy. “Fit it with concrete shoes and send it to the bottom of the ocean,” Cooke wrote.

It’s hard to imagine that reopening international travel will happen without some kind of system for recognizing foreign vaccines. Last week, the World Health Organization seemed to point the way, urging national governments to recognize all vaccines that have received WHO Emergency Use Listing so that they could avoid “chaos, confusion and discrimination.”

Speaking on Wednesday, Zients said the administration was working on a “new system” that could include “vaccination requirements for foreign nationals traveling to the United States,” as well as improved approaches to testing and surveillance. Although it is unclear what this means, the Biden administration might need to be more French and less American.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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