So the European Union, which has largely controlled the spread of COVID-19 and understandably wants to keep it that way, is deciding whom to let into its borders come July 1. And the list of approved countries, to be released next week, will apparently not include the U.S. Many Americans will be outraged. President Donald Trump is sure to have a hissy fit.
A glance down the list, which is still being drawn up and will be reviewed every 14 days based on new epidemiological data, will only make Americans madder. How dare those Europeans treat us like Brazilians and Russians, who’ll also be restricted? How dare they treat us worse than Ugandan or Vietnamese visitors, who get the greenlight? Even China, the origin of what Trump — in typical race-baiting fashion — calls the “kung flu,” made the cut.
Actually, though, the only thing worthy of outrage in all this is that American attitude. It’s Trump and his cronies who want to pretend that absolutely everything, even epidemiology, is not only political but also about him. The EU, for its part, is trying extra hard to base its decision purely on science. Using those criteria, ask yourself: Why wouldn’t the EU try to keep nonessential American travelers out?
The global heat map of SARS-CoV-2 has been shifting since the coronavirus spread from China at the beginning of the year. For a while, Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe were the epicenter. But most of the EU (to which Britain no longer belongs) has now controlled the virus’s transmission. In fact, countries like Germany now have the relative luxury of exchanging the sledgehammer of general lockdowns for the scalpel of local and temporary restrictions, whenever there are isolated outbreaks, as in the city of Guetersloh. Reimporting the virus wholesale from regions where it’s still rampant would be irresponsible.
And the U.S. is one such region. As a country, it’s currently the global epicenter, with more than 2.3 million cases and over 120,000 deaths from COVID-19. Within it, some regions have the virus under control, whereas others — Texas, Arizona and Florida, for example — don’t. But such regional variance also applied to the EU when Trump slapped a widespread ban on European visitors in March, at a time when the virus was already spreading mainly within the U.S.
That decision, like the additional scorn Trump will now predictably heap upon the Europeans, was indeed mostly political. Since before taking office, Trump has been treating some European countries and leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, more like foes than allies. Witness his decision just the other week to withdraw about one in four American troops stationed in Germany, apparently to settle personal scores.
On the European side, by contrast, there’s a genuine effort to keep politics out of decisions about travel restrictions. Yes, reciprocity is admittedly one factor for the decision: The U.S. still keeps out European visitors. The main consideration by the Europeans, however, as reported by the New York Times, is the average number of infections per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. In the EU as a whole, that’s currently 16. In the U.S., it’s 107. Case closed.
Most Europeans actually want U.S. visitors to return, just as they want to resume going stateside. They like Americans as tourists, business partners, allies and above all friends. And they want transatlantic relations to thaw out of the ice age in which they’ve been frozen since Trump entered the White House. But they also want to keep a pandemic at bay.
Most Americans will understand that, and keep it in mind when Trump starts bashing Europe again. But others will fume. Those partial to Trump will do so because this European gesture holds a mirror to his own failings in responding to the coronavirus.
Others will be furious because they think the U.S., especially in its relations with Europe, should be held to different rules than any other country. But that’s exactly the kind of American exceptionalism, often expressed in international “exemptionalism,” that I recently critiqued. As a regular transatlantic traveler myself, I hope all restrictions will be gone as soon as possible. But the best way to get there is for the U.S. to start dealing with this outbreak properly.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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