Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Europe prepares to reopen to foreign travelers, but Americans don't even figure into the discussion

Jun 27. 2020
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European diplomats are poised to approve an agreement on which foreign travelers they want to welcome starting on July 1, as the European Union reopens its external borders for the first time since March, but with the coronavirus still raging in the United States, the possibility of allowing American tourists hasn't even figured into the discussion, according to six diplomats familiar with the talks.

Europe's draft in-and-out list reflects its assessment of how well other countries have managed to control their outbreaks. EU countries were among the world's hardest hit by the pandemic this spring, but most now have the virus under control and have been willing to consider opening their borders to other countries where covid-19 is similarly in check. 

China is among the 15 countries set to make the cut, despite EU skepticism about how transparent it has been about its outbreak. Visitors from China would be allowed to enter Europe only if Beijing drops measures against EU travelers.

Also expected to be approved: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

The list is subject to final approval on Saturday, but diplomats said it was unlikely to change. 

The rest of the world would continue to be kept out for nonessential travel.

The decision underscores the perception here that United States has failed in its coronavirus response. European leaders and health experts have watched with unease as many U.S. states insist on reopening, even as infections spike in many parts of the country. 

EU members have seen clusters of infections since they began relaxing their own restrictions. Germany, Spain and Portugal are among those that have reimposed localized lockdowns. But for the bloc as a whole, diagnoses have slowed to 16 cases per 100,000 population over the past two weeks, the main measure Europe is using to determine whether countries make the cut.

The United States, by contrast, stands at 122 cases per 100,000 population and is getting worse. Florida has set records for the past 19 days in a row.

Wary of being pulled into a diplomatic brawl with each country they continue to exclude, European leaders have strained to keep their internal discussions focused narrowly on issues of science and epidemiology. 

"The European Union has an internal process to determine from which countries it would be safe to accept travelers," Eric Mamer, a spokesman for the European Commission, told reporters on Thursday as the discussions were underway. "Our internal process is related, obviously, to considerations based on health criteria."

But there are clear political pressures.

The continued restrictions on travel from the United States will strain Europe's most important geopolitical relationship, even if it was President Donald Trump who moved first to block European travelers in March. Continuing the ban on travel with Russia will exacerbate diplomatic tensions with an already-volatile neighbor. 

The EU plans to review its list of acceptable countries every two weeks.

The list is a recommendation, not a requirement, because each EU nation retains sovereign control over its borders. But EU members have strong incentives to go along with the decision, since, if they do not, the gradual process of restoring border-free travel within Europe could be placed on hold or reversed, diplomats said.

Diplomats negotiated for hours in multiple meetings in recent days. Although there are tensions between poorer, tourist-dependent southern European nations and richer, more cautious northern ones, enough countries are in favor to assure the decision, diplomats said. 

The blandly technocratic discussions - conducted in-person by the 27 EU ambassadors in a conference room in Brussels - masked the human drama caused by the travel disruptions. Couples have been stuck on opposite sides of the Atlantic for months. Business negotiations are on hold. Long-dreamed-of vacations have been delayed. Europe's airports, once bustling connectors for the world, have been eerily quiet. In Brussels, the airport usually has 300 flights a day. It expects 435 for all next week, according to a spokeswoman.

And for the United States - where travel restrictions on Europe remain in place - the European decisions were a point-blank assessment that a U.S. passport, once one of the world's most powerful, now carries a black mark of disease.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday acknowledged the desire in Washington to open up the world for travel again.

"We're all taking seriously the need to figure out how to get this open. We need to get our global economy back going again," he told an online discussion held by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "We'll work closely with our European friends, broadly, because I know there's different views, again, inside the European Union." He cited "a dozen or more" countries that were interested in opening up to Americans, without naming any of them.

During the EU discussions, there have been judgment calls. Some countries, such as China, report infection figures that some public health officials don't fully trust. Other countries are trending worse, even though their overall infection levels remain relatively decent. And - as Trump has noted repeatedly in recent days - if a country doesn't perform as many tests, it doesn't find as many infections. The European Union plans to consult with its delegations on the ground to decide how much trust to put in each country's official figures.

Europe fell into two camps during the discussions: the tourist-seeking countries and everyone else, according to the diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the closed-door negotiations. The tourist spots - led by Greece and Portugal - favored allowing more people to come visit, hoping to salvage at least a scrap of their fast-dwindling summer season. Other countries, especially in the chillier, richer north, wanted to proceed more cautiously. 

The talks were also complicated by the fact that European caseloads vary widely. Sweden, the worst-off in Europe, reported 155 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. Portugal, the second-worst, stood at 44. Britain, which is no longer a member of the EU but until the end of the year is subject to many EU decisions, was in third place at 24.

And then there were countries that are close enough in their caseload to Europe that they could have been allowed or excluded depending on where precisely the line was drawn. Turkey, Canada and Egypt all had backers and detractors, the diplomats said, since they have slightly worse infection rates than the European Union. Ukraine was on the list, then dropped off. Tiny Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people, steadfastly remained. There was extensive back and forth about China, which has been reporting lower infection rates than the European Union and which has imposed travel restrictions on some E.U. countries but not others. 




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