European citizens woke up Thursday with news that U.S. travel to and from the European Union was suspended for 30 days. There is still confusion over the exact extent of the restriction for goods and cargo, but it is clear non-American citizens or non-permanent residents who have visited the Schengen Area (which conspicuously excludes the United Kingdom despite about 500 cases) in the past 14 days are barred from entering the United States.
President Trump is right to “put the well-being of America first.” Nor is it absurd to apply a specific approach to the Schengen Area as one entity, given the free flow of people and shared borders in the second-most-impacted area by the virus in the world. But there is little evidence that a travel ban will have much impact on the contagion in the United States at this stage. Besides, excluding countries such as the United Kingdom suggests a more political consideration than a serious effort to contain the virus.
This uncoordinated and unilateral response to a global crisis, one more example of “America First” policy, risks aggravating the crisis and will have lasting consequences on American leadership and America’s alliance system. Wednesday’s speech will resonate in European minds for a long time, echoing previous unilateral decisions, such as the abandonment of Kurdish partners in Syria late last year.
Commitment to allies is tested in moments of crises, and this response will create a precedent that friends, and adversaries, will notice. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there has been widespread criticism of the U.S. response to deal with the contagion. Testing is severely restricted. Social media abounds with testimonies from individuals presenting one or several symptoms unable to get tested despite their best attempts.
Instead of addressing the containment and response to the crisis in detail, President Trump has chosen to shift the blame to European nations for the spread of what he dubbed a “foreign virus.”
Now it’s time for Europeans to ensure solidarity among themselves. Where the alliance is failing, the E.U. must prove its unity and capacity to help its citizens. After a divided and haphazard initial reaction, European leaders have committed 25 billion euros to respond to the economic fallout. Of these, 7.5 billion euros should be available quickly, through unspent structural funds, to respond to some of the emergency necessities.
According to Politico, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also unveiled “plans to take stock of protective gear and necessary medical equipment to improve distribution around the EU.” But Germany is still maintaining restrictions on exports of protective equipment and France has requisitioned face masks, leading to fears of shortages elsewhere in Europe. This is also a critical test for the E.U. after years of crises (migrants, debt) that have deeply strained its institutions. Italy has been at the forefront of these crises with little support, turning one of the most pro-European countries into a bastion for eurosceptic populism.
More needs to be done to address both the immediate crisis and the long-term economic impact, which will require challenging some long-held budgetary orthodoxies in Europe. As the Italian ambassador to the E.U. implored on Tuesday: “The coronavirus crisis is not just a national crisis. It’s a European crisis, and it needs to be treated as such. But it’s time now for the EU to go beyond engagement and consultations, with emergency actions that are quick, concrete and effective.”
Meanwhile, China has made much of its aid to Italy after it sent experts, ventilators and masks. Beijing seems to have gotten the spread of the virus under control. This is the deeper existential challenge the E.U. faces: that its citizens will look to authoritarian models such as China as providing a more effective response to this crisis than their own institutions, weak and unresponsive, or showing more solidarity than its main ally, the United States.
There is no nationalist response to a global crisis. This moment demands cooperation, exchange of information, economic support as well as messages of empathy between allies. The United States could have chosen to lead the global response, working closely with the E.U. Instead, it chose to hunker down. The consequences will be long-lasting. There is no self-quarantine from international leadership.