President Trump’s address to the nation last night was a mess. He announced that the US “will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days” starting tomorrow, when in fact, certain classes of individuals—not least US citizens and permanent residents—will be allowed to make the journey. (This caused mass confusion at several major airports.)
Trump stated that restrictions would also be applied to “trade and cargo” coming from Europe, when in fact, they won’t be. (This caused mass confusion on the markets.) He asserted that health insurance providers “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments,” when in fact, they’ve agreed to waive co-payments for coronavirus testing. (All of these errors caused mass confusion among journalists.)
Leaving aside, for now, that the ban is spuriously predicated and unlikely to be effective, there’s another issue here—Trump’s use of the term “Europe.” In his defense, “Europe” is a contested, ever-shifting, multifaceted concept. (It’s a long story involving Zeus turning into a bull, and, much more recently, Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Delors, and Boris Johnson; Kazakhstan is in Europe for soccer purposes, and Israel and Australia compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.)
Under almost any common definition, however, Trump has not banned travel from “Europe.” Rather, he has banned “all aliens who were physically present within the Schengen Area during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.” The Schengen Area, named after an agreement signed in Luxembourg in 1985, is a bloc of 26 countries—Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland—between which movement is not (generally) restricted.
While the Schengen Agreement has been incorporated into European Union law, it is not coterminous with the EU. Several EU countries—including the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, and Romania—aren’t in Schengen, and several Schengen countries—including Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland—aren’t in the EU. Britain has never been in Schengen, and since January, it isn’t in the EU, either. And many other countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, the list goes on—don’t belong to either institution, but are very much in Europe.
None of these nuances stopped Trump from asserting a “Europe” travel ban, and some headline writers don’t appear to have been deterred, either. Many articles on the ban articulate, correctly, that it affects, on a temporary basis, foreign nationals (from any country) who have been present in any of 26 European countries in recent weeks. Yet many toplines and tweets use the phrase “Europe travel ban” as shorthand. That’s regrettable, in part because precision matters in journalism. (In this case, the phrase “Trump’s Europe travel ban” excludes the convenient fact—noticed by many outlets—that countries containing Trump golf clubs won’t be affected.)
But there’s something deeper at stake here, too. Travel bans like this one are dehumanizing. They lump complicated, disparate groups of people into arbitrarily-drawn buckets; their purpose is to define human beings—and, in this case, countries—into division, to stigmatize them, to make them the other. The shorthand we use to refer to these efforts really matters—if it’s lazy, we risk doing the divider’s work for them, and then some. To parrot Trump’s claim that he “suspended all travel from Europe” risks implying all sorts of fraught identity connotations. Are countries not covered by the ban—Britain, Ireland, Serbia, and so on—not really “in Europe”? This may seem pedantic—but Britain just had a four-year political war over a similar question.
In 2017, I argued that reporters should call Trump’s Muslim travel ban a “Muslim ban”—it was neither a ban on all Muslims, or even people from all Muslim countries, and yet the spirit of the policy, I wrote, was to discriminate and stigmatize on religious grounds, and we should not lose sight of that. The circumstances here are not entirely different—with his coronavirus travel ban, as with his Muslim one, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is seeking to create a scapegoat for rising American fear.
But European countries, clearly, are not subject to the same discrimination that Muslims are, from Trump or anyone else. What’s important, when choosing shorthand terms for complex policies, is to try and communicate something of the forces behind them. Unlike “Muslim travel ban,” “Europe travel ban,” as well as being wrong, doesn’t explain much about what Trump is trying to do here.