BRUSSELS – The European Union on Friday recommended its member states lift the ban on non-essential travel for visitors from the United States, a move that will certainly be welcomed by Americans keen to visit the continent after more than a year of strict restrictions.
The recommendation is non-binding and each member state can decide what regulations, including quarantines, to impose on visitors. Americans were mostly banned from Europe as the United States struggled with one of the highest workloads in the world.
The opening should also relieve the countries of southern Europe which are very dependent on tourism, in particular Italy and Portugal. These countries have urged the European Commission to act so that the entire summer tourist season is not affected by the absence of Americans, who are seen as relatively large spenders.
The move comes just days after President Biden visited Brussels, where he met with senior EU officials.
But despite vows of mutual affection between Mr Biden and officials, travel remains one-sided. Europeans are still not allowed to enter the United States for non-essential travel even though they have been fully vaccinated, following a sweeping travel ban announced by President Donald J. Trump in March 2020 and extended in January by Mr. Biden.
Friday’s official decision was taken by EU economics ministers, who agreed to add the United States to a list of countries considered epidemiologically safe. This means that travelers from those countries should be free to enter the block, even if they are not fully vaccinated, based on a negative PCR test for active coronavirus infection.
But the European Union cannot force member countries to open up to American visitors. Each country is free to maintain or impose more stringent restrictions, such as a mandatory quarantine on arrival or undergo a series of additional tests.
Countries like Greece and Spain, more heavily dependent on tourism, have already moved in recent weeks to reopen to tourists from outside the European Union, including from the United States. The European Commission has criticized these first measures.
More open trips last summer between European countries were blamed for the deadly increases in cases.
But more than half of EU residents have now received at least one shot of the vaccine, creating better conditions for opening up economies and restoring freer travel. Still, concerns remain about the opening as new and highly contagious variants, like the one known as Delta, spread.
“Bringing back travel between continents is a good thing, but it is not without risk,” said Marc Van Ranst, one of Belgium’s top virologists and government adviser. “The easing of travel restrictions during the summer period will inevitably lead to the spread of the Delta variant, also in countries where it is not yet established.”
Still, Dr Van Ranst said he didn’t expect a significant increase in Covid-19 cases like this last fall, but he insisted on the importance of a second dose of the vaccine. to provide adequate protection.
Jean-Michel Dogné, professor at the University of Namur in Belgium and adviser to the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization, welcomed the decision to open up to travelers from the United States because America “vaccinates a lot, and with effective vaccines against the Delta variant.”
But he also warned against opening too wide and too fast. “We are in an intermediate situation,” he said. “The vaccination campaign is progressing, but we need to monitor the situation very closely and be prepared to reintroduce restrictions. “
To do this, the bloc has maintained a so-called emergency brake, a legal tool that allows it to quickly impose more restrictive measures.
In the spring of 2020, in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the European Union largely blocked the arrival of outside travelers. There were a few exceptions for countries that met specific criteria, including low infection rates, as well as more general conditions, such as the overall response to Covid-19 and the reciprocity of outside countries in welcoming European visitors. .
By introducing these less precise requirements, the bloc has gained discretion in choosing which countries to include in the list. China meets the quantitative criteria, but entry for Chinese travelers is conditional on reciprocity, although EU economics ministers on Friday approved dropping the reciprocity requirement for Hong Kong and Macao. The reciprocity requirement appears to have been dropped in the case of the United States.
Restrictive policies on travel on both sides of the Atlantic have separated families and communities, caused billion dollar losses to the tourism and airline industries, and mainly halted transatlantic business travel. Many Europeans living and working in the United States did not make it to Europe because once the American ban was in place they could be denied return to America, said Celia Belin, foreign policy researcher at the Center on United States and the United States. Europe at the Brookings Institution.
“My whole family is in France or Belgium,” said Ms. Belin, a French citizen living in Washington, DC “We have been completely isolated here. It was heartbreaking. “
As the European vaccination campaign gained momentum after a first crisis, the European Commission last month recommended allowing unrestricted entry to anyone outside the bloc who was not an EU national and who had been fully vaccinated with vaccines approved by the block drug regulator or by the World Health Organization.
Friday’s decision extends that recommendation to all Americans, vaccinated or not.
Lifting travel restrictions between the world’s richest countries with high vaccination rates highlights glaring global inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines, experts say.
“Only 0.3% of the doses of the Covid-19 vaccine administered globally have been in low-income countries,” said Dr Thomas Kenyon, director of health at Project HOPE, a global health organization and relief, and former director of global health at the Centers for Disease Control. “This is in large part due to the insufficient global supply of vaccines to meet current demand and the inability of low-income countries to compete in the market with richer countries.”
The new opening of the European Union comes as it heads towards a July 1 target for widespread implementation of a Covid certificate system. Sixteen member countries started issuing and accepting the certificate in early June, ahead of schedule.
The certificate indicates whether people have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, recovered from Covid-19, or tested negative in the past 72 hours, and must allow people who meet any of the three criteria to move freely within 27 member countries. The bloc’s long-term goal is the compatibility of its certificates with those issued by national authorities in partner countries such as the United States, but that goal could be distant.