Why Trump’s EU Travel Restrictions Do Not Help To Prevent Coronavirus Outbreak

A man walks past a closed Air France counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City following President Trump's announcement of an EU travel ban on March 11, 2020.

On Wednesday night, President Donald Trump shocked the world when he banned travel from the European Union for the next 30 days. This announcement blindsided European embassies in Washington, caused mass panic among Americans abroad, and sent stock futures into a free fall as Trump appeared to completely ban trade with Europe as well as travel. Despite later guidance from the administration clarifying travel exceptions and reiterating that U.S.-Europe trade was not banned, the damage was done. At a moment where Trump should have made a commitment to widespread testing, provided an update on his administration’s plan to combat the new coronavirus outbreak, or simply reassured the American people, he took the opportunity to once again attack Europe.

President Trump blamed Europe for the spread of COVID-19, saying: “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.” This is likely to cause an intense diplomatic row with America’s closest allies at the worst possible time. European leaders were quick to express their disapproval of the ban, with the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council saying that the outbreak was a “global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.”

Indeed, there appears to be little basis for the ban, which goes into effect on Friday, March 13, at midnight.

Instead of reassuring Europeans and Americans abroad, Trump’s remarks caused mass panic as citizens rushed to book travel before the ban went into effect and flights were canceled. There are tens of thousands of Europeans and Americans abroad. In Germany alone, there are nearly 120,000 American residents, not including the hundreds of students and travelers who may be in the country. Although the Trump administration later clarified that the ban did not apply to U.S. citizens, many decided to return to the United States as soon as possible. And as travelers reportedly begin to crowd major airports, the sudden travel may actually worsen the spread of the disease. Some may be unable to change flights or leave before Friday, trapping them in the United States or Europe. And many Europeans may be stuck in the United States, where they lack U.S. health insurance or access to Europe’s various national health care systems. If a European citizen becomes fatally ill in the United States and is unable to get care, the outrage in Europe will be palpable. All of this will strain America’s already shaky relationships with its European allies.

In addition, President Trump’s travel ban excludes the United Kingdom, even though the country has the second most cases outside of Italy—and its health minister just tested positive for the disease. This also means that Europeans can simply travel through London to the United States as long as they haven’t spent time in the Schengen Zone within the past 14 days.

There are two probable explanations for not including the United Kingdom in the travel ban. First, Trump has a relatively positive relationship with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was the chief advocate for Brexit. Second, Trump has deep financial ties to the United Kingdom, with golf courses that would be negatively affected by a travel ban. President Trump was already embroiled in a scandal for forcing U.S. military personnel to go out of their way to stay at his struggling properties. There’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t continue to use his office to benefit himself personally, even while responding to a global pandemic.

It is possible that Europe may respond with a reciprocal travel ban. At this point, if a travel ban is at all necessary, Europe would be just as likely to need one from the United States. With the exception of Italy, whose country is already on lockdown, there are fewer cases of COVID-19 in most other European countries than there are here in the United States. So far, Europe has been much more proactive about testing its citizens. Regardless, Trump’s ban further damaged the transatlantic relationship at a crucial time.

The travel ban will also have a significant negative economic impacts for both the United States and Europe. The European Union is America’s largest trading partner. Billions in goods and services cross the Atlantic, constituting one-third of global trade and 40 percent of trade in services. Although the White House was quick to walk back Trump’s claims that trade would be suspended, even suspending travel to Europe will cause market disruption. A significant percentage of the goods coming to the United States travel from Europe via passenger jets. Therefore, as transatlantic flights are canceled, it is likely that shipping rates will surge. The travel industry will also likely experience significant losses as airlines and cruise companies are forced to cancel trips. Already, Trump’s remarks appear likely to cause even more volatility in the stock market, which has experienced historic losses this week.

More broadly, President Trump’s response last night fits into his pattern of attacking European allies instead of offering solidarity or trying to find solutions to shared challenges. Last month, Trump said that “Europe has been treating us very badly.” He has also called the European Union a “foe,” claimed that it was created to “take advantage” of the United States, and encouraged a no-deal Brexit.

Trump’s approach to Europe is wrong and merely seems to advance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda to divide the transatlantic alliance. It was the United States that pushed for Europe to integrate after World War II. America has traditionally been the strongest advocate of European integration, and Europe has been a key strategic partner for decades. At this moment of global crisis, the United States should be showing solidarity with its closest allies, not needlessly sowing division and baselessly attacking them.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Siena Cicarelli is a research assistant at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.