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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is keen to help Americans with their holiday plans — but she’s playing catch-up with EU governments who are already doing their own thing.
A number of EU countries are breaking away from jointly adopted guidelines on pandemic travel, as some capitals rush to reopen for summer tourists.
In a sign that the Commission chief is again on the defensive, as she was at the start of the pandemic when some countries unilaterally slammed shut their borders, von der Leyen on Sunday told the New York Times that she hoped to reopen the EU to U.S. visitors who have been inoculated with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency.
But Croatia and Greece, two EU countries whose economies rely heavily on tourism, have already announced that they are open to U.S. travelers, as has Iceland, which is part of the EU’s border-free Schengen zone. Some U.S. airlines have raced to add flights to those destinations, anticipating a rush of post-pandemic summer travel.
At the Commission’s regular daily news conference on Monday, officials acknowledged that the EU’s travel rules were merely a recommendation that national capitals could ignore, and were also under no obligation to notify Brussels of any deviations.
And they acknowledged that von der Leyen’s comments were premature, given that a discussion over changing the rules for external visitors has just gotten underway — and that it’s not yet clear the epidemiological situation justifies adding the U.S. to the list of countries from which nonessential travel to the EU is permissible.
“We have been following very closely the progress of vaccination in the United States and we seek to restore transatlantic travel as soon as it is safe to do so,” Adalbert Jahnz, a Commission spokesman, said in reply to a question about the president’s remarks.
But Jahnz said that there was no decision yet to change the guidelines.
“Now, for the future, as the president said in her interview with the New York Times, the use of EMA-approved vaccines in the U.S. will help to enable travel to the EU,” he said, adding that officials in Brussels were working with Washington to be sure that certificates verifying vaccination in the EU and U.S. would be compatible.
The EU’s so-called “digital green certificates” were envisioned firstly as a way to ease travel between EU member states, many of whom are still imposing travel limitations even on EU citizens. But officials, especially in countries with large tourism sectors, are also hoping the certificates can help revive leisure travel in time for summer holidays.
“In the meantime the Commission is currently preparing a proposal to amend the recommendation on the external travel restriction in order to take into account the recent developments,” Jahnz said, referring in part to vaccination efforts in the U.S. “Discussions are currently ongoing with the member states to prepare this proposal,” he said.
But in response to a question, Jahnz conceded that EU countries had already broken away from the existing travel guidelines, which were unanimously adopted by the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council, and that they were under no obligation to follow any new guidelines the Commission might propose.
Still, he urged national capitals to act in concert, citing the continued risk from coronavirus variants.
“Unilateral approaches from our perspective should be avoided,” he said. “Now, member states as you have said are indeed taking different approaches in certain circumstances. But from the EU perspective, we are now looking into making this new proposal for the external travel restriction, and as I said, we have started discussions with member states in order to do this.”
He also noted that countries were under no legal obligation to follow the common rules. “It is not a piece of binding law, so member states have some flexibility as to how they deal with this issue.”
In initial discussions among EU diplomats and national officials last week, some countries voiced reservations about allowing U.S. travelers back to Europe any time soon, citing the risks of spreading coronavirus variants, including those from Brazil.
French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed his own desire to welcome U.S. tourists back to Europe. “We are working hard to propose a very concrete solution, especially for U.S. citizens who are vaccinated, so with a special pass,” Macron said in a recent interview with CBS, the U.S. television network.
But many EU diplomats reacted with great caution.
“I understand that countries that count on American tourists like France have this desire,” said one diplomat. But “overall member states want to be sure to avoid problems with the variants,” the diplomat said, describing the overall approach as “very cautious.”
National governments are particularly concerned that travelers from countries still banned for entry, like Brazil, could end up flying to Europe via the U.S.
A second diplomat said the Commission is expected to present its new proposal to EU ambassadors next week, hoping to get all the political weight it needs to move forward and please capitals eager to open their borders to U.S visitors.
Pressed on the issue again later in the news briefing, Eric Mamer, the Commission’s chief spokesman said that even once the green certificates are operable, the capitals would be in charge. “This has not changed the prerogatives of member states,” he said. “And of course therefore member states will remain ultimately those who will take the decisions.” Mamer said the Commission’s role was to set goals in hopes member countries would follow them.
Officials noted that coordination on vaccine certificates was not yet underway with the U.K., despite the relatively large number of British travelers that could be expected to visit Europe over the summer. The absence of those talks could reflect the ongoing tensions both over Brexit and over competition for supplies of vaccine doses.
There is potential for chaos if EU countries persist in setting their own rules, as occurred a year ago at the start of the pandemic when a mishmash of measures disrupted travel and commerce. Once visitors arrive in a Schengen country they can move relatively easily within the zone.
European Council President Charles Michel, who coordinates the summits of EU heads of state and government, has not said if a proposal to revise travel guidelines will be on the agenda of the next leaders’ meeting.
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