Trump’s travel ban draws European ire as crisis grows
President Trump’s abrupt announcement that he would impose travel restrictions on Europe is putting further strain on the transatlantic relationship at a time when the world grapples with a growing public health crisis.
The president on Wednesday said during a rare Oval Office address that his administration would issue the new travel ban as it seeks to contain the spread of coronavirus.
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” Trump said, after accusing European officials of not taking enough precautions to stem the flow of the virus on the continent.
The unexpected move capped an extraordinary day that saw the World Health Organization declare the virus a pandemic as governments and businesses around the globe rushed to respond.
In Europe, where Italy has become a flashpoint in the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s announcement was met with surprise and anger.
“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said in an unusually pointed joint statement.
“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
The travel restrictions, which take effect Friday and came shortly after Italy announced it would expand a nationwide lockdown in response to the virus, represented the latest escalation in an increasingly fraught relationship between Washington and Brussels.
The president has frequently lashed out at the EU over its protectionist trade policies and defense spending, and has levied tariffs on European steel and other products. He has repeatedly criticized leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. And his administration is slated to raise tariffs on European aircraft next week.
Some European officials were quick to call the travel restrictions another part of Trump’s nationalist foreign policy agenda.
“Trump needed a narrative to exonerate his administration from any responsibility in the crisis,” Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the U.S., tweeted on Wednesday. “The foreigner is always a good scapegoat. The Chinese has already been used. So, let’s take the European, not any European, the EU-one. Doesn’t make sense but ideologically healthy.”
Ex-Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, meanwhile, called the U.K.’s exemption from the travel ban an “irresponsible” political move.
“Viruses do not recognise borders. Decisions should be based on facts, not politics,” Stubb tweeted.
Adding to the frustration was the administration’s rushed rollout of the ban, which caught European officials off guard.
“They could probably have stomached this type of action if the president had just talked to them, prepared them, given them a heads-up and not tried to blame them for all of his problems in the speech,” said Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s not actually the action that he took, it’s the way he did it.”
Trump on Thursday defended his handling of the ban, arguing he had to act quickly amid a fluid crisis.
“I mean, when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us,” he told reporters alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, while emphasizing that the travel ban would be temporary.
Trump’s address was also criticized after the White House walked back some of his remarks, which initially seemed to suggest that European goods would be subject to the ban as well. Officials later clarified that trade would not be affected.
The White House also clarified that Ireland, along with the U.K., would be exempt from the restrictions.
“The fact that he exempted the United Kingdom on the same day the British government admitted that they could not mitigate the outbreak of coronavirus in that country is just bizarre,” said Erik Jones, director of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Speaking from his home office in Bologna, Italy, where the Johns Hopkins maintains a campus and which has been under lockdown along with the rest of the country, Jones said the travel restrictions were in the end “an unnecessary aggravation” that were unlikely to have a long-term effect on the U.S.-European partnership.
But he added that Trump’s bungled messaging has likely led to short-term economic consequences and, at least for the time being, could cause undue stress on the alliance.
“I never thought I would see the transatlantic relationship come apart in this way,” Jones said.