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Europe prepares to reopen to foreign travellers, including Australians

But with the coronavirus still raging in the United States, the possibility of allowing American tourists hasn’t even figured into the discussion, according to six diplomats familiar with the talks.

The list is subject to final approval on Saturday, Brussels time, but diplomats said it was unlikely to change. The rest of the world would continue to be kept out for non-essential travel.

The decision underscores the perception that the United States has failed in its coronavirus response. European leaders and health experts have watched with unease as many American states insist on reopening, even as infections spike in many parts of the country.

EU members have seen clusters of infections since they began relaxing their own restrictions. Germany, Spain and Portugal are among those that have reimposed localised lockdowns. But for the bloc as a whole, diagnoses have slowed to 16 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, the main measure Europe is using to determine whether countries make the cut.

The US, by contrast, has 122 cases per 100,000 people, and numbers are getting worse. Florida has set records for the past 19 days in a row.

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Wary of being pulled into a diplomatic brawl with each country they continue to exclude, European leaders have strained to keep their internal discussions focused narrowly on issues of science and epidemiology.

“The European Union has an internal process to determine from which countries it would be safe to accept travellers,” Eric Mamer, a spokesman for the European Commission, told reporters as the discussions were underway. “Our internal process is related, obviously, to considerations based on health criteria.”

But there are clear political pressures.

Continuing the ban on travel from Russia will exacerbate diplomatic tensions with an already volatile neighbour. Extending restrictions on travel from the US will strain Europe’s most important geopolitical relationship, even if it was President Donald Trump who moved first to block European travellers in March.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday acknowledged the desire in Washington to open up the world for travel again.

“We’re all taking seriously the need to figure out how to get this open. We need to get our global economy back going again,” he said in an online discussion hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “We’ll work closely with our European friends, broadly, because I know there’s different views, again, inside the European Union.” He cited “a dozen or more” countries that were interested in opening up to Americans, without naming any of them.

The EU list is a recommendation, not a requirement, because each EU nation retains sovereign control over its borders. But EU members have strong incentives to go along with the decision, since, if they do not, the gradual process of restoring border-free travel within Europe could be placed on hold or reversed, diplomats said. The EU plans to review its list of acceptable countries every two weeks.

European diplomats, gathering in person in a Brussels conference room, negotiated for hours in multiple meetings in recent days. The blandly technocratic discussions masked the human drama caused by the travel disruptions. Couples have been stuck on opposite sides of the Atlantic for months. Business negotiations are on hold. Long-dreamed-of holidays have been delayed. Europe’s airports, once bustling connectors for the world, have been eerily quiet. In Brussels, the airport usually has 300 flights a day. It expected 435 for all of next week, according to a spokeswoman.

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People fell into two camps during the discussions, according to diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the closed-door negotiations. Those from poorer, tourist-dependent southern European nations – led by Greece and Portugal – favoured approving more countries, hoping to salvage at least a scrap of their fast-dwindling summer season. Other EU nations, especially in the richer north, wanted to proceed more cautiously.

The talks were further complicated by the fact that European caseloads vary widely. Sweden, the current worst-off in Europe, reported 155 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. Portugal, the second-worst, stood at 44. Britain, which is no longer a member of the EU but until the end of the year is subject to many EU decisions, was third at 24.

The diplomats debated which outside countries’ public health numbers they could trust. There was extensive back-and-forth about China, which has been reporting lower infection rates than the EU and which has imposed travel restrictions on some EU countries but not others.

The EU planned to consult with its delegations on the ground to decide how much stock to put in each country’s official figures.

Negotiators also had to make judgment calls about countries that are trending worse, even though their overall infection levels remain relatively decent.

Much of the talks focused on where, precisely, to draw the line for the list. Turkey, Canada and Egypt all had backers and detractors, the diplomats said, since they have slightly worse infection rates than the EU. Ukraine was on the list, then dropped off. Tiny Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people, steadfastly remained.

The Washington Post

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