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US likely to be left out as Europe reopens to visitors from selected countries

A security guard controls the distance between commuters on escalators at Catalunya station on April 14, 2020, in Barcelona, Spain. (Jordi Boixareu/Zuma Press/TNS)

The headline in a leading German newspaper put it succinctly: “Cuba yes, USA no.”

With the European Union moving toward reopening external borders on July 1, travelers from the United States could be among those excluded over coronavirus concerns, according to diplomats and documents about the bloc’s decision-making process.

Visitors from some less developed countries that have been more successful in stemming their outbreaks are expected to be welcomed under the disease-control metrics the 27-nation EU is weighing.

No decision has yet been made. But for the holders of dark-blue American passports and even U.S. green cards, such a restriction would mark a humbling reversal — and to some, a symbol of Washington’s slipping prestige amid the pandemic.

In recent weeks, Europeans have watched in fascinated horror as the Trump administration has faltered in efforts to stem the spread of the virus, which as of Wednesday had claimed more than 121,900 U.S. lives, the world’s highest toll. After trending downward for more than six weeks, new U.S. coronavirus cases hit two-month highs this week, bringing them back to levels of an April peak early in the outbreak.

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“People are completely shocked by the way the United States has mishandled the crisis,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “The one nation they thought they could always rely on for leadership and help isn’t even able to help itself.”

In European countries long counted as among America’s closest allies, the news of the U.S. potentially being left off the travel list is drawing mixed emotions — sympathy and unease, hard-nosed realism and in some quarters a touch of scorn. Many staunch supporters of transatlantic ties genuinely mourn any fresh distancing from a country that is warmly remembered for helping the continent back to its feet after the devastation of World War II.

But even those heavily dependent on revenue from the 15 million annual American visitors to Europe say they trust that EU policy will be both safety-driven and based on objective measurements.

“Tourism is not about politics or specific nationalities,” said Marcelo Risi, director of communications for the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization. “Countries impose their own criteria based on public health.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the globe have used border closings as a tool to safeguard against contagion. The United States was no exception; President Trump placed restrictions on travel from China at the end of January and imposed a near-ban on arrivals from Europe in March. Even the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are closed to nonessential travel.

But now that Europe has managed to substantially reduce its own rates of infection and death, movement within the bloc has been gradually resuming. And as a next step, the EU — especially members with the most tourism-heavy economies — wants to again accept visitors from abroad, largely kept at bay since March.

A decision to keep out American travelers, if finalized, threatens to put the U.S. in an unenviable category — an informal club made up of countries such as Russia and Brazil, where strongmen leaders sought to dismiss the threat of the virus and are now reaping the consequences in the form of raging outbreaks.

Travelers originating from countries including India and Mexico, also suffering serious coronavirus caseloads, would probably face exclusion as well, at least for the time being. But some less developed countries — Vietnam or Cuba, for example — appear poised to make the travel grade.

Many Europeans find it unfathomable that the world’s superpower, with all its wealth and scientific prowess, has found it impossible to emulate the likes of New Zealand, which has all but eradicated COVID-19, or even Greece, which has waged a surprisingly successful campaign against the virus despite pressing economic and social woes.

Trump has long struck a dismissive and even hostile attitude toward historic European allies, deriding the EU as worse than China on trade matters, declaring that the bloc was created to undermine the U.S. economically, and cheering Britain’s decision to break away from the EU.

The president has also shaken the transatlantic alliance, hectoring North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to increase their domestic military spending and repeating the false claim that they are in arrears to the alliance. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor and author of a scathing White House memoir, told the Axios news site this week that it was “highly questionable” that Trump would keep the U.S. in NATO if he wins another term.

But despite displays of tension, the EU has emphasized that the baseline for coronavirus policy is science, not politics. If the bloc does finalize a list of permitted visitors that leaves Americans out in the cold, it is likely to couple that with declarations that the determination is grounded firmly in risk assessment, and will be reevaluated on a rolling basis every few weeks.

This month, the European Commission recommended that travel to the EU and the Schengen visa-free travel zone, with which the bloc partially overlaps, be permitted only from third countries where the coronavirus situation was on par with EU countries, or better.

In light of that, the prospect of excluding Americans is “not surprising,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper based in Germany’s commercial capital, said in an editorial, with the Cuba-U.S. comparison in its headline. “EU members should not add countries that go over the limits.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a trained scientist, and the country is applying the same standard within its own borders, rigorously tying reopening steps to metrics on the spread of the virus. Merkel also rebuffed the idea floated by Trump last month of an in-person Group of 7 summit rather than a virtual one, out of safety concerns.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, asked Wednesday about European decision-making on reopening external borders, stressed cooperation, even though Trump in March failed to give European leaders a heads-up about his Oval Office announcement that most European travelers would be kept out of the United States.

“We’ve been working with countries all across the world, including our friends in Europe and the EU proper, to determine how it is we can safely reopen international travel,” Pompeo told a small group of reporters at the State Department, who were properly socially distanced for safety.

He said the administration did not want to see any plan “that jeopardizes the United States from people traveling here, and we certainly don’t want to cause problems anyplace else.”

Germany’s Der Spiegel newsmagazine said EU internal discussions centered on two key criteria: the level of new infections in a given country, and also reciprocity — if EU citizens are not allowed in, that country’s chances of its own citizens being allowed in are low, it said.

In a summer season already blighted by the pandemic, U.S. visitors would be sorely missed, said Sara Amrhein, a 44-year-old American jewelry artist based in Florence, Italy. But with the memory of one of Europe’s worst outbreaks still fresh in Italy, the country is wary of any source of new infections.

“It’s tough, because obviously American tourism is one of the biggest contributors to tourism in Florence and to the economy here — a lot of people are struggling right now,” Amrhein said. “But until things are under control and they have a better handle on what’s happening in the States, I do think it’s the right decision.”

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.