Trump’s European Travel Ban Doesn’t Make Sense

The president’s decision to bar travelers from Europe is an early indication of the power of a pandemic to infect international relations.

Spectators wave American and European Union flags at a golf tournament in 2008.
Shaun Best / Reuters
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Last night, a few thousand Atlético Madrid supporters crammed into a corner of Liverpool’s Anfield stadium to watch their soccer team knock the reigning European champions out of the continent’s premier competition, the UEFA Champions League. As they woke in their hotel rooms and Airbnbs this morning, they discovered, as Madrileños, or, more important, Europeans who live in the no-border Schengen Area that operates on the continent, that they are now barred from traveling to the United States. The 50,000 Liverpool fans who were also in the stadium last night, or at least those who happen to be British or Irish, awoke chastened by their team’s defeat—but not banned.

If there is an award for the most absurd spectacle capturing the arbitrariness of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, this surely wins it.

President Donald Trump’s decision to ban most European citizens from traveling to the U.S., except those from the United Kingdom and Ireland, appears to make no sense, and to inject past grievances and prejudices into delicate scientific and political equations. In this spiraling thriller–cum–horror novel, Trump’s emergence, full of hostility and conspiracy, with warnings of foreign viruses, heralds a darkening turn—an early indication of the power of a pandemic to infect global decision making and international relations.

Politics, domestic and international, is already morphing under the strain of the coronavirus, and all signs indicate that it will continue to do so. Some governments will rise to higher ideals, to duty and justice, equity and science; others will simply be unable to meet the test or, worse, disgrace themselves. Some systems will allow combinations of various measures, and some political leaders will take decisions in good faith, based on good science, but still get it wrong. This, though, is the stage when politics comes to the fore, when the values of those with power are revealed. More than that, this crisis is becoming a test of the international order, formal and institutional or informal and cultural, to cope with the pressures placed on it by nationalism, quackery, corruption, ignorance, and malevolence.

Yesterday, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, slashed interest rates in a coordinated stimulus effort with the British government. He declared that 2008 had revealed the danger that the new globally integrated financial system posed, but that today this very system could help, not hinder. In his world, global institutions and a culture of coordination had developed. The giants of the financial crash had learned the lessons from the 1930s and moved quickly and globally in the knowledge that a beggar-my-neighbor policy in a global depression beggars everyone in the end. Today, it is sobering simply to wonder whether anyone is applying this lesson to the pandemic—an even more obvious case of the stupidity of petty nationalism.

And yet, as ever with the American president, the rationale for his decision carries its own peculiarly Trumpian worldview, exposing both how he sees the world and the weaknesses of who he sees as his adversaries. Trump is nothing if not alive to the flaws of his enemies. In this case, it is not without logic to treat the European Schengen Area as one country. While it clearly isn’t one and doesn’t overlap neatly with either the euro or the European Union (Norway, which is not an EU member, is part of Schengen; Ireland, which is both an EU member and part of the eurozone, is not), it is a core feature for almost all EU member states, a common travel area in which there are no internal checks. Schengen is one of Europe’s core strengths and accomplishments, but also a structural weakness that continues to challenge its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens.

The EU is a proto-state. It has the institutions of a state, a central bank and parliament, currency and court. And yet it is weaker than a conventional state, mostly unable to take effective collective action in times of crisis, whether diplomatically, fiscally, or militarily. Its weakness is in handling migration and debts, refugees and Russian aggression. The worry today is that this weakness will be exposed, even though the coronavirus is exactly the type of cross-border challenge that highlights one of the EU’s fundamental strengths: its ability to coordinate continentally.

Trump’s logic appears to be that the coronavirus is on the loose in Europe, and because there are no restrictions within Europe, the only sensible thing to do is apply a ban to all those countries without restrictions. That worldview is undermined by the reality of life: European soccer, for example. Ultimately, Britain might not yet be as badly affected as Italy or France, but the U.K. government is under no illusions that it will be. Where does Trump’s logic go then?

In 2008, the United States and Britain led the world in the response to the financial crisis. Today, Britain is responding with quiet resolution that some fear is too calm, even if it is led by scientific advice. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government will be judged by the results of its decisions. In the end, though, London is clear that, ultimately, it cannot control a global outbreak—life goes on, and it is global, whether that be in the realm of soccer, medicine, or financial transactions. It is contained globally or not at all is the mantra. Does America any longer feel the same? Whether it does or not, that’s the reality. The truth, though, is that politics is not ignorant of borders, even if the pandemic largely is.