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Monday, September 21, 2020
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Trump, Johnson and a Covid-19 dilemma

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IN A live national TV broadcast early yesterday, US President Donald Trump dramatically banned travel from the EU in the hope of controlling the spread of Covid-19 (which the World Health Organisation had just declared a global pandemic). 

The ban will apply for 30 days from midnight tonight. His prepared speech initially described the ban as applying to ‘Europe’, but went on to clarify that the ban applies to the EU less Britain.

He criticised the EU for being slower than the US to ban travel from China, with the result that some American hotspots were ‘seeded’ by travellers from China via Europe. He then made an exception for Britain, without explaining why. This leaves a practical puzzle for Americans, and a policy dilemma for Britain.

Will Boris Johnson’s administration similarly ban travel from the EU?

Technically, Britain would be in violation of the EU principle of freedom of movement, because Britain has not left yet in any practical sense. Britain will not escape the EU’s laws, principles, rules and regulations until the New Year, at the earliest.

Here we have the latest confirmation of the costs of EU membership to British sovereignty, freedoms and security. Of course, if Brexit had been implemented in good order after the referendum in June 2016, EU strictures would not be issues today. For that, Johnson can blame nearly four years of procrastination and frustration of popular democracy by Remainers, of whom the most responsible is his predecessor as Prime Minister, Theresa May.

Yet Johnson is not without blame here. He can be blamed for reacting slowly to the pandemic’s spread across the EU. Within Europe, the most acute hotspot at national level is Italy, whence travellers to Britain are still not being screened. Instead, the Foreign Office advises returning Britons to self-isolate. This is a shameful lapse in the practice of home security: such screening was always within Britain’s right under clauses allowing temporary emergency interruption of the EU’s freedom of movement. It would have been a trivial matter: it can be achieved non-intrusively and quickly by measuring body temperature with a remote device, then filtering those with raised temperatures for more invasive screening. It’s not foolproof, but it’s hardly disruptive.

Britain is not alone in this blind spot towards Italy. The US, too, has failed to screen arrivals from Italy, even though it was early to ban travellers from China (late January).

Now Trump has raced ahead of any other country by banning inbound travellers from the continental EU too. Since the EU has open borders, he was forced to ban the whole of the EU in order to ban travellers from Italy.

His exception for Britain is strange. Britain is still a member of the EU. Thus, it still has open borders with the EU, although its maritime borders allow for more physical friction to travel, and thus more opportunities to assess and intervene during the process of travel. This friction is not lawful under EU law – it’s just an exploitable practice.

Yet, for American homeland security, the puzzle remains: Why isn’t travel banned from Britain as from the rest of the EU? Trump’s ban cannot control the travel of the virus from the EU unless Britain also bans travel from the EU. Otherwise, travellers from Italy could land freely in Britain, then travel freely to the US. Once journalists start proving this opportunity with their own experiments, or interview unscreened arrivals at American ports of entry from Italy via London, then Trump’s ban will look pretty silly.

I presume that the US government is expecting Britain also to ban inbound travel from the continental EU. Perhaps the Trump administration has already pressed the British government to do so. I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes; I just watched Trump’s address live on television like anyone else.

What I can predict is that if the Trump administration has not already pressed the British government to align on this ban, it will soon do so. Otherwise Trump looks pro-British to the detriment of American security. At one point, his speech reminded us: ‘America first’. If Britain does not align, then Trump must ban travel from Britain too if his policy is to make any sense.

Unless Johnson pre-empts Trump’s pressure, he looks indecisive (again). For weeks, he has characteristically communicated much but changed little. Travel from Italy is still open; curbs on mass assemblies, for instance at sports grounds, have not been scheduled; mass transit and public spaces are not being cleaned; screening kits have not been distributed.

Can Johnson analogise Trump’s speech by putting ‘Britain first’ and taking all ‘strong but necessary’ actions, even ‘unprecedented’ actions, to keep Britons safe from a ‘horrible infection’?

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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