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EU may bar American travelers as it reopens borders, citing failures on virus

BRUSSELS — European Union countries rushing to revive their economies and reopen their borders after months of coronavirus restrictions are prepared to block Americans from entering because the United States has failed to control the scourge, according to draft lists of acceptable travelers seen by The New York Times.

That prospect, which would lump American visitors in with Russians and Brazilians as unwelcome, is a stinging blow to American prestige in the world and a repudiation of President Trump’s handling of the virus in the United States, which has more than 2.3 million cases and upward of 120,000 deaths, more than any other country.

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European nations are currently haggling over two potential lists of acceptable visitors based on how countries are faring with the pandemic. Both lists include China, as well as developing nations like Uganda, Cuba, and Vietnam. Both also exclude the United States and other countries that were deemed too risky because of the spread of the virus.

Travelers from the United States and the rest of the world already had been excluded from visiting the European Union — with few exceptions mostly for repatriations or “essential travel” — since mid-March. But a final decision on reopening the borders is expected early next week, before the bloc reopens July 1.

A prohibition of Americans by Brussels partly reflects the shifting pattern of the pandemic. In March, when Europe was the epicenter, Trump infuriated European leaders when he banned citizens from most EU countries from traveling to the United States. Trump justified the move as necessary to protect the country, which at the time had roughly 1,100 coronavirus cases and 38 deaths.

In late May and early June, Trump said Europe was “making progress” and hinted that some restrictions would be lifted soon, but nothing has happened since then. Today, Europe has largely curbed the outbreak, even as the United States, the worst afflicted, has seen more infection surges just in the past week.

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Prohibiting American travelers from entering the European Union would have significant economic, cultural, and geopolitical ramifications. Millions of American tourists visit Europe every summer. Business travel is common, given the huge economic ties between the United States and the EU.

Despite the disruptions caused by such a ban, European officials involved in the talks said it was highly unlikely an exception would be made for the United States. They said that the criteria for creating the list of acceptable countries had been deliberately kept as scientific and nonpolitical as possible.

Including the United States now, the officials said, would represent a complete flouting of the bloc’s reasoning. But they said the United States could be added later to the list, which will be revised every two weeks based on updated infection rates.

It was unclear whether American officials were aware in advance of the exclusion of the United States from the draft lists, which have not been made public.

The draft lists were shared with the Times by an official involved in the talks and confirmed by another official involved in the talks. Two additional EU officials confirmed the content of the lists as well the details of the negotiations to shape and finalize them. All of the officials gave the information on condition of anonymity because the issue is politically delicate.

The forging of a common list of outsiders who can enter the bloc is part of an effort by the European Union to fully reopen internal borders among its 27 member states. Free travel and trade among members is a core principle of the bloc — one that has been badly disrupted during the pandemic.

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Countries on the EU draft lists have been selected as safe based on a combination of epidemiological criteria. The benchmark is the EU average number of new infections — over the past 14 days — per 100,000 people, which is currently 16 for the bloc. The comparable number for the United States is 107, while Brazil’s is 190, and Russia’s is 80, according to a Times database.

Once diplomats agree on a final list, it will be presented as a recommendation early next week before July 1. The EU can’t force members to adopt it, but European officials warn that failure of any of the 27 members to stick to it could lead to the reintroduction of borders within the bloc.

The reason this exercise is additionally complex for Europe is that, if internal borders are open but member states don’t honor the same rules, visitors from nonapproved nations could land in one country and then jump onward to other EU nations undetected.

European officials said the list would be revised every two weeks to reflect new realities around the world as nations see the virus ebb and flow.

The process of agreeing on it has been challenging, with diplomats from all European member states hunkering down for multiple hourslong meetings for the past few weeks.

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As of Tuesday, the officials and diplomats were poring over the two versions of the safe list under debate and were scheduled to meet again Wednesday to continue sparring over the details.

One list contains 47 countries and includes only those nations with an infection rate lower than the EU average. The other longer list has 54 countries and also includes those nations with slightly worse case rates than the EU average, going up to 20 new cases per 100,000 people.

The existing restrictions on nonessential travel to all 27 member states plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein were introduced March 16 and extended twice until July 1, in a bid to contain the virus as the continent entered a three-month long confinement.

“Discussions are happening very intensively,” to reach consensus in time for July 1, said Adalbert Jahnz, a spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch. He called the process “frankly, a full-time job.”

The EU agency for infectious diseases, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, warned negotiators that the case numbers were so dependent on the level of truthfulness and testing in each country that it was hard to vouch for them, officials taking part in the talks said.

China, for example, has been accused of withholding information and manipulating the numbers of infections released to the public. In parts of the developing world, case numbers are very low, but it’s hard to determine whether they paint an accurate picture given limited testing.

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Many EU countries are desperate to reopen their borders to visitors from outside the region to salvage tourism and boost airlines’ revenue while keeping their own borders open to each other. Some have already started accepting visitors from outside the bloc.