Donald Trump’s abrupt move to bar most travel from Europe blindsided allies long accustomed to explaining away the president’s criticism of NATO, talking down his threats of trade wars and biting their tongues over his decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump’s garbled announcement on Wednesday night — he said all travel, including cargo would be banned, before backtracking — unleashed a torrent of criticism that the American president was turning a legitimate public health crisis into a moment for political opportunism.
To European Union nations, the president was more focused on scoring political points against “bureaucrats in Brussels” — a term his secretary of state used — than working with allies to confront a global crisis.
“This is one more nail in the coffin for transatlantic relations,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based International Affairs Institute and a former special adviser to the European Union. “There’s no coordination, no sense of ‘we’re in this mess together.’”
Diplomats and analysts describe a turning point in the continent’s already strained relationship with a U.S. administration that has at times openly questioned the EU’s very existence. While past jibes were seen as little more than populist fodder, this time Trump put his scorn for the European idea into action: closing the door to more than two dozen nations beset by the coronavirus, while leaving the U.K. — which has more virus cases than many EU members — unscathed.
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Trump’s speech sought no common ground with European nations, characterizing them as part of a problem, not partners to work with. He referred to the coronavirus as a “foreign virus,” portraying the U.S. as the victim of outside forces.
“Trump remains true to Trump,” Bernd Lange, the German head of the European Parliament’s trade committee, said on Twitter. “Again wiping away own inaction with a known scapegoat.”
European allies were blindsided by Trump’s speech. The American president had not consulted with any of them before announcing the travel restrictions, a decision he made after a marathon day of debate among his staff on Wednesday.
“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” according to a statement from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
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Trump’s abrupt move was, according to diplomats and experts, a crisp distillation of his “America First” foreign policy that has pitted the U.S. against the rest of the world, with European nations drawing particular scorn from the president. Rather than taking a leadership role in managing the crisis, Trump has tried to seal off the U.S. from the rest of the world, much as he’s talked of sealing off America’s southern border.
On Thursday morning, Trump, in his typically combative style, was in no mood for conciliation over subjecting Europeans to a travel ban.
“We had to make a decision,” Trump told reporters. “When they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us, and I think that’s probably one and the same.”
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo sought to downplay the diplomatic fallout, gliding over the fact that European leaders hadn’t been consulted and leaving confusion among American tourists over whether they would be able to return home. Officials have said Americans could come home after being screened.
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“We have been in frequent contact with our Allies, and will continue to engage with them as we fight the #Coronavirus and marshal the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people,” Pompeo tweeted on Thursday.
Experts say one of the more curious elements of Trump’s decision is that he could have done the same thing without offending anyone if he had chosen to talk through his intentions with allies. Given the rate of spread of the virus, European leaders have restricted travel, and they may have accepted limits into the U.S. as understandable.
But Trump’s move appeared to be overtly political. He pointedly excluded the U.K., whose decision this year to leave the European Union was an outcome he had long championed, even though it has more coronavirus cases than many European countries. The U.K. has at least 456 reported cases, compared with 104 in the Czech Republic, 399 in Belgium and 117 in Greece.
Exempting the U.K.
“What was interesting was that the Europeans weren’t necessarily opposed to it,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, when asked about travel restrictions. “But they’re saying the horse has already bolted, it’s not going to have much impact and why are you going to make this about the EU versus the U.S. and exempting the U.K.?”
U.K. authorities decided on Thursday to end efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus and instead focus on delaying the worst of the impact, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
For European diplomats, Trump’s action on Wednesday night was only the most extreme in a pattern that has long been building. In December of 2018, Pompeo went to Brussels — home of the EU’s headquarters — and issued a blistering attack on the body and other international institutions, questioning their relevancy and the wisdom of “bureaucrats in Brussels.”
“Multilateralism has become viewed as an end unto itself,” he said, mocking the idea that “the more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.”
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Other envoys point to a trip in July 2018 by Jean-Claude Juncker, von der Leyen’s predecessor as European Commission president, who met with Trump in a bid to prevent a trade war. While he was successful in striking a temporary détente, Juncker and his team realized that the partner Europe was used to dealing with across the Atlantic was gone.
“There is a feeling among many parts of the politics community in Europe that the least bad way of doing things is play for time, try to limit the damage while Trump is there and get back to serious business when Trump is gone,” said Nicolas Veron, senior fellow at the think tank Bruegel and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“If Trump gets re-elected, this holding pattern is no longer a plausible stance,” he added. “Europeans will have to assume that ‘Trumpism’ is a U.S. stance for the foreseeable future, and that has massive consequences.”
— With assistance by Ian Wishart, and Jonathan Stearns
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