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Why Are the Borders Between the U.S. and Europe Still Closed—and When Will They Open?

By Michelle Baran

Oct 12, 2020

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Paris, we miss you.

Photo by Catarina Belova/Shutterstock

Paris, we miss you.

Between the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the number of governments and entities that need to work together and agree, and reciprocity issues, there are a lot of hurdles.

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Who could have thought back in mid-March—when history-altering travel bans brought travel between the U.S. and Europe to a standstill—that seven months later those bans would still be in place? Yet here we are with little sign of travel between Europe and the United States opening up on any significant level imminently.

What isn’t helping move things along is the fact that the United States is currently embroiled in an extremely distracting and politically disruptive presidential election.

“The fact that we’re here with less than a month before the election—both sides are making calculations as to how relief [for businesses] or reopening [travel] or lack thereof helps them best,” says Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the Washington, D.C.–based U.S. Travel Association, which represents the U.S. travel and tourism industry.

“From an international reopening standpoint, we absolutely think that getting the borders open is critical,” says Barnes. But, she adds, “Ultimately, the lack of certainty around what happens in this election is creating an inability to actually move forward.”

And it’s not just about swaying voters one way or the other, notes Barnes. A big part of the challenge is the implementation and execution of any processes that are put in place prior to the November 3 election. For instance, if the Trump Administration were to initiate any agreements toward reopening travel, who’s to say that a President Joe Biden wouldn’t decide on a different tack that would complicate efforts already underway?

Challenges with coordination and cooperation

Another (at times seemingly insurmountable) issue facing both the United States and Europe is coordination. In the U.S., it’s the coordination of states that poses challenges, and in Europe, it’s the coordination of countries.

“It’s a much more complicated process beyond just, could there be an executive order that says OK, yes, we can have international travel [again],” says Barnes.

Part of the problem, she says, is just how different and polarized the approach to travel amid the pandemic has been on a state-by-state level in the United States—with some states implementing quarantine measures, others having mandatory COVID-19 testing requirements, and others with no restrictions at all—which makes it very challenging to envision and implement a unified approach to international arrivals.

“The ability for a governor to impact what an airport can or can’t do as it relates to testing or masks or what have you, the patchwork of the handling of the virus within the states, creates a lack of certainty on having a consistent approach to international reopening just from the U.S. side,” Barnes says.

A kaleidoscope of restrictions in Europe

Back in March, European Union leaders agreed to impose travel restrictions on most foreigners entering Europe to limit the spread of COVID-19. Those restrictions have been extended several times, and currently only travelers from a list of 10 countries are exempt from the ban—those coming from Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay. The United States remains off the list due to the high coronavirus case numbers and deaths stateside. There are some exceptions, including for European Union citizens, EU residents, some of their family members, passengers in transit, some essential workers, and students.

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The hope, according to Luís Araújo, the recently appointed president of the European Travel Commission (ETC), is that in lieu of blanket travel bans such as the ones currently in place for the majority of international travelers wishing to head to Europe, European countries would arrive at alternative solutions that would ultimately permit more international travel from outside of Europe—such as requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.

“We firmly believe that these blanket restrictions should be immediately replaced by comprehensive cost-efficient measures to minimize the risk of traveling, such as testing upon departure based on an agreed protocol and coordinated tracing systems,” Araújo tells AFAR.

ETC is a Brussels-based collection of national tourism organizations  that promotes travel to Europe; it has been working with European governments to find ways to open to more international travelers.

EU leaders initially agreed that member countries should not independently lift travel restrictions for countries that were not on the exempted list before it’s been decided upon in a coordinated manner. But not all European countries have stuck to those guidelines—for instance, on July 10, Croatia opened its borders to all international travelers as long as they provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result procured within 48 hours of arriving at the Croatian border.

And the approach within Europe has been anything but coordinated as well—travelers coming from the United Kingdom can enter France without restrictions, but those going in the opposite direction have to quarantine; travelers to Italy coming from EU countries must fill out a health form, unless they’re coming from a list of countries that requires proof of a negative test.

And just as in the United States, political posturing is an issue across the pond as well.

“Governments are going to decide [on their travel restrictions]—and it’s not something over which we have any control,” says Tom Jenkins, CEO of the U.K.-based European Tour Operators Associations (ETOA). “A lot of the quarantine measures in my opinion are grandstanding by governments wanting to be seen as acting strong and hanging tough. It’s basically bonkers what we’re dealing with at the moment.” 

When will travel between the United States and Europe resume?

For travel between the United States and Europe to be able to resume prior to a vaccine (and even after a vaccine, as the need for cooperation and coordination will continue), both sides would have to agree on the procedures needed to best protect travelers and citizens heading in both directions from transmission. For instance, if it’s a COVID-19 testing protocol, requiring travelers to procure evidence of a negative test before and/or after their journey, that would ultimately be agreed upon, then all departure and arrival airports and destinations would need to be onboard with enforcement.

Even if European governments were able to reach a compromise on the terms of allowing additional foreign travelers in, the opening of travel from the United States to Europe would still rely on the United States opening up to Europe, too.

“While the U.S. is not considering allowing citizens of Schengen states to enter the country, it is less likely that Europe will lift its restrictions for U.S. travelers,” says Araújo.

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Despite the presidential election distractions, Barnes notes that there are numerous government agencies in Washington having conversations about when and how to reopen our borders to travelers from Europe and elsewhere—the ban on travel to the United States currently applies to travelers arriving from China, Iran, and Brazil, as well as those coming from the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

However, she says she hasn’t received any indication that the executive order that President Trump put into place in March banning the majority of travelers coming from Europe to the United States will be lifted this year.

“In 2020, we may be able to see, I hope, progress made towards at least a bilateral pilot on how best to proceed with a broader reopening. I don’t know that I see the proclamation being lifted [this year]—but I don’t know,” says Barnes.

We have already seen the beginnings of such a bilateral pilot with the first trials of a new digital health “passport,” which kicked off last week on United Airlines flights between London and New York, enabling travelers to provide certified COVID-19 test information to border officials upon arrival.

The digital health pass, called CommonPass, was developed by Swiss-based nonprofit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum; it is being presented to 37 governments (and counting) as a way to help facilitate the reopening of borders and travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Travel and tourism has been down across the board due to the COVID pandemic,” states Diane Sabatino, deputy executive director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “CBP wants to be part of the solution to build confidence in air travel, and we are glad to help the aviation industry and our federal partners [start up] a pilot like CommonPass.”

With the help of COVID testing, there is hope that an “air bridge” allowing for travel between London and New York will be up and running by November.

Despite some glimmers of progress, others have indicated that they, too, don’t see the ban on travel being lifted—or a more widespread opening up of travel—in either direction before the end of the year.

“The consensus really amongst everybody is that there will be no volume [transatlantic] travel before a vaccine is widely distributed and recognized as working. I don’t think we’re going to have any confidence back in the market before then. When that will happen? Well, we just don’t know,” says ETOA’s Jenkins.

The ETC’s Araújo also doesn’t see travel across the Atlantic realistically returning until after a vaccine becomes widely available, hopefully sometime in the first half of next year.

“The only thing that we could hope for in the short term is more flights from the U.S. to Europe [for those visiting] friends and relatives. Moreover, adding business travel to the list of essential travel will also be a positive development for the wider tourism industry,” says Araújo.

Araújo’s advice to Americans: Don’t stop dreaming about traveling to Europe. “Very soon we will be launching communication campaigns to invite American citizens to come back to Europe,” he says.

It’s safe to say that many of us cannot wait for that invitation.

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