Politics infected the EU’s debate over coronavirus travel restrictions — but members of the club recovered and reached a deal Tuesday to reopen their external borders to a select list of countries.
After a pitched and prolonged battle among diplomats that stretched late into Friday night and through the weekend, the Council of the EU on Tuesday agreed to recommend lifting the bloc’s ban on travelers from 14 nations beginning Wednesday.
The highly controversial list notably excluded the United States, where infections are still rising uncontrolled, but added China as a 15th nation, literally with an asterisk. Inbound travel will be permitted “subject to confirmation of reciprocity,” reads the footnote. Travelers from China can enter only if Beijing lifts its own restrictions on the EU.
The decision, taken via written procedure and by a qualified majority vote — in which Poland, Bulgaria, Austria and Portugal abstained in frustration, and Denmark and Ireland opted out using exemptions under the EU treaties — avoided a potentially humiliating failure for the EU just as the bloc’s rotating presidency is being handed off to Germany from Croatia. Around 20 countries supported the decision.
But the fierce fight over which countries’ citizens should be allowed to resume nonessential travel also showed how a decision ostensibly anchored in evidenced-based science — about how best to limit the spread of COVID-19 — was in fact hijacked by an array of political sensitivities and financial interests, notably in those countries heavily reliant on tourism.
The countries that made the cut were: Algeria, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, Rwanda, Serbia, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay and China (with the reciprocity caveat).
“We injected politics into science,” one diplomat said. “If it had only been for science we would open up only to Canada, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand … It’s a calculated risk.”
In the end, excluding the U.S. was among the easiest aspects of the debate despite the protestations of Poland, which served as Washington’s best advocate in Brussels.
The Council recommendation calls on countries in the EU’s Schengen travel zone to judge other nations against “the epidemiological situation within the EU, i.e. the average number of COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days and per 100,000 inhabitants.” And the continuing high rates of infection in the U.S., especially in southern and western states, precluded opening up to America.
EU officials are still sore over President Donald Trump’s unilateral imposition of a travel ban back in March — announced without notice and in a late-night speech — that set off chaos in European airports. But in the end, retribution was not a factor, diplomats said. The U.S. is simply still too sick. And European countries that normally benefit from hordes of U.S. summer tourists could hardly take pleasure in the situation.
In addition to the four cited by the diplomat, the countries that made the cut were: Algeria, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, Rwanda, Serbia, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay and China (with the reciprocity caveat).
The finalized list ended up less the product of a scientific formula than a balance of national interests. Some capitals wanted to include their former colonies, with France favoring those in Northern Africa. Portugal agreed to exclude Brazil but wanted Angola in. Bulgaria wanted Turkey, Russia and North Macedonia permitted for tourism reasons.
Other diplomats said three countries wanted to send an additional political message to China by specifying Hong Kong and Macau be treated the same as the People’s Republic — a stance guaranteed to trigger a diplomatic explosion in Beijing.
A second diplomat expressed concern that the ban on external travelers would be lifted, even as some internal EU border restrictions remain.
“We are a bit puzzled by how this played out,” the diplomat said. “Reopening should be based on epidemiological and non-politicized evidence. The process should be more objective, and bullet-proof. The way things are being done, it lacks of scientifically solid evidence.”
This diplomat stressed that some countries seemed to be pushing to reopen too fast. “The sense of urgency goes beyond what is reasonable. What is the hurry?”
Shadowing all of those discussions, EU officials and diplomats were under extraordinary pressure to avoid the chaos from the early days of the pandemic. At the same time, they had to fashion a compromise in an area where national law is the supreme authority.
That means the Council decision is a recommendation, not an obligation. The Council recommendation calls for the list to be reviewed every two weeks.
Jennifer Janzen, a spokeswoman for A4E, the European airline trade association, welcomed the agreement, but added that she was “disappointed to see so few countries on the list but we are confident that more will be added as the situation will improve in third countries.”
But one airline executive from a non-EU country said that there may be more flexibility in practice. “What member states decide at EU level is not necessarily what is done,” the executive said.
“The situation and the process remains very confusing,” the executive added. “How can you sell tickets in such a fluid situation?”
Indeed, EU diplomats acknowledged there are many complications, including how to deal with permitted travelers who might transit through countries whose travelers are still banned.
Some EU diplomats insisted that health concerns — not politics — drove the discussion. “Geopolitics was not involved, it’s wrong to say it that way,” a third diplomat said.
But a fourth diplomat stressed that in the end, EU countries had to avoid embarrassment. “We could not repeat the chaos we had with the borders at the beginning of the crisis,” the diplomat said. “We needed to send a signal of European coordination. We have an important presidency coming up in a crucial moment. We needed to show we made some progress.”
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.
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