Biden launches review of travel restrictions on UK, Europe ahead of overseas trip

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Families, students and tourists hoping President Joe Biden will announce that the United States is dropping travel restrictions on the United Kingdom and European countries will have to wait a little longer.

Biden is not expected to relax restrictions introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic during a trip to Europe that starts this week, multiple people in contact with senior U.S. officials said. An official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that changes to the policy are not imminent.

Instead, the White House says it will launch working groups led by its COVID-19 Response Team and the National Security Council that will create roadmaps for safe reopening of international travel. Officials from the CDC and the departments of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Transportation will also participate.

“While we are not reopening international travel today, we hope that these expert working groups will help us use our collective expertise to chart a path forward, with a goal of reopening international travel with our key partners when it is determined that it is safe to do so,” a White House official told McClatchy in a statement.

The official said the Biden administration was launching the working groups with Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

European leaders are expected to broach the issue of travel restrictions, which have become somewhat of a sore spot, during a series of summits that Biden is attending during his first overseas trip as president.

Biden is scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday in advance of the Group of Seven gathering in England — that will also be attended by German and French leaders — before continuing on to Brussels for additional summits with U.S. allies and European officials.

Almost 64% of Americans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Monday, when airline companies intensified pressure on the U.S. and UK governments to make it easier for vaccinated individuals to travel between the two countries. Biden is eyeing the July Fourth holiday to reach a 70% vaccination target.

American Airlines Chairman and CEO Doug Parker said that allowing vaccinated individuals who test negative for COVID-19 to travel overseas would provide an incentive that would help reach Biden’s goal more quickly.

“This would be a good way to help compel that to happen, to give people yet another reason to get vaccinated and get us over that 70% threshold,” Parker said.

Non-citizens cannot enter the United States if they have been to certain countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, within a 14 day-period prior to their arrival, unless they are green-card holders or they receive a special government exemption.

British Airways Chairman and CEO Sean Doyle said 5 million people typically travel between the United Kingdom and United States every year and the restrictions are taking a toll. He encouraged Biden and Johnson to “seize the initiative this week” and set the pace for future international travel.

TENSION WITH EUROPE

It wasn’t just airline companies hoping for a policy change this week.

“A lot of Europeans are hoping and expecting that there will be some form of announcement made at the summit in Brussels,” said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, although he said in foreign policy circles “there’s no expectation of that,” despite the pressure that is building on Biden to loosen travel restrictions.

Former U.S. officials who are close to the Biden administration told McClatchy that the federal government is being extra cautious in its approach over concern about the potential for spread of COVID-19 variants within the United States.

Even though the European Union recommended that member states ease restrictions on travel to their country by fully vaccinated individuals, including Americans, Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, said, “The Americans have let the European countries know there won’t be any reciprocity.”

Travel restrictions came up during White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s meeting with France’s national security adviser last week, a person familiar with the conversation told McClatchy.

Sullivan said Monday that the United States is listening to the pleas of allied nations that want to see the restrictions relaxed.

“We have heard very clearly the desire of our friends in Europe and in the UK, to be able to reopen travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and we want to see that happen. But we have to follow the science and we have to follow the guidance of our public health professionals. So we are actively engaging with them to determine the time frame,” Sullivan told reporters during a White House press briefing.

The travel restrictions are a growing concern for Europeans living in the United States who have not traveled home during the pandemic out of concern they won’t be able to reenter the country and for European countries where vaccination rates are on the rise.

“Having a discriminatory travel ban continuing for just a certain category of people is detrimental to tourism, obviously, but mostly it is just unfair,” said Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a big concern, an everyday concern for a lot of people.”

Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said while travel restrictions would not be an issue “that’s going to sort of blow up the transatlantic relationship” it would be a “minor irritant” in conversations.

“The sense in Europe was that this was sort of a side issue that wasn’t getting a lot of attention, it wasn’t really being focused on by American political leaders. And so now European leaders want to make sure that this is something President Biden is paying attention to,” said Bergmann, who was a former speechwriter to climate envoy John Kerry when he was secretary of State.

Vaccinated Americans are now allowed to travel to some European countries, including France, after the European Union decided in May to adjust its guidance. Many countries in Europe, including Germany, France and Spain, have lower vaccination rates than the United States, but more than 75 percent of people living in the UK have now received their first vaccine dose, according to UK government data.

John Bolton, who was national security advisor to former President Donald Trump at the time of the last G7 conference prior to the pandemic, said he supports the creation of a vaccine document that other countries would recognize.

“This is an opportunity for Biden to show some leadership. I think the idea of the restrictions on people who are vaccinated traveling pretty much anywhere is mistaken,” Bolton said.

Vaccine documents like the one that Bolton described are not favored by other conservatives, and the Biden administration has repeatedly said the federal government will not be creating vaccine passports like the ones that are under development in Europe.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s what we need,” Bolton said. “If people are vaccinated, they ought to be allowed to travel, and that’s what the G7 should agree on.”

The United Kingdom currently allows Americans to enter, but they must quarantine on arrival and repeatedly test negative for the coronavirus, even if they have been vaccinated. Those rules are unrelated to the U.S. travel ban, a UK official said, adding that a scientific committee will decide when Americans do not have to abide by quarantine rules.

Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat and director of Global Engagement at the White House in the Obama administration, said it is possible that Biden could be persuaded in Europe that the U.S. process should be sped up.

“Diplomacy is all about reciprocity,” Bruen, president of the Global Situation Room, said. “So Biden is likely to get an earful from leaders in Europe, especially in Brussels, when he visits.”

White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed reporting.

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