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Amid mounting frustration, Biden suggests decision on EU travel coming within days

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Thursday his COVID response team is reviewing U.S. travel restrictions that bar visitors from the European Union and could announce changes in the coming days.

Biden's remarks come amid mounting frustration in European capitals about the ongoing U.S. travel ban, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed Biden on the issue in a private meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday.

"It's in process now," Biden said. " And I'll be able to answer that question ... within the next several days." He said he is waiting to hear the White House's COVID advisers "as to when that (lifting the travel ban) should be done."

Merkel said she raised the issue in her meeting with Biden and noted the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus was a factor, saying it has been a challenge for both the U.S. and Germany.

President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday.
President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday.

"It has to be a sustainable decision," Merkel said. "It is certainly not sensible to have to take it back after only a few days."

The European Union has moved to begin lifting travel restrictions on Americans who want to visit the bloc, whether they have been vaccinated or not. The EU guidelines, issued in June, are not binding, as each country in the bloc has made its own decisions on travel during the pandemic.

Biden and Merkel discussed a range of other issues, from climate change to the withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

Merkel has served Germany through 4 U.S. presidents

Thursday’s meetings were far friendlier than the notoriously testy confrontations between Merkel and former President Donald Trump, who tussled over everything from NATO dues to the U.S. president’s Twitter taunts.

At the start of Thursday's news conference, Biden showered Merkel with praise as she prepares to leave Germany's political stage after more than 15 years as chancellor. Merkel's visit to the White House on Thursday is likely to be her last as head of state.

Biden noted that Merkel was Germany's first female chancellor and her tenure lasted through four American presidents.

“Here’s an exemplary life of groundbreaking service to Germany, and I might add … to the world," Biden said as Merkel stood by his side.

Despite Biden's plaudits for the German leader, there were contentious issues on the agenda when they sat down earlier for a private one-on-one meeting. In addition to the U.S. travel restrictions, the two leaders also tangled over Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline that would run from Russia to Germany and that the U.S. fears will give Moscow increased leverage over Europe. American officials also worry it would undercut Ukraine's economy by reducing its gas transportation revenue.

Biden said he and Merkel agreed to look for "practical measures" that could be taken to ensure energy is not used as coercive tool against Ukraine or other allies.

"Merkel and I are absolutely united in our conviction that Russia must not be allowed to use energy as a weapon to coerce or threaten its neighbors," he said.

Merkel stressed the importance of Ukraine's right to serve as a "transit country" for natural gas but also emphasized its right to territorial sovereignty "just as any other country in the world."

A senior administration official, who briefed reporters ahead of the Biden-Merkel meeting on the condition of anonymity, defended the White House's decision to forgo imposing sanctions on the companies involved in building the pipeline, a move that sparked bipartisan criticism from lawmakers in Congress. Biden's advisers said the pipeline was nearly completed before he took office and it was too late now to stop it.

Merkel began her visit at the Naval Observatory for a "working breakfast" with Vice President Kamala Harris. It marked the first time Harris has hosted a foreign leader at the vice president's residence.

Harris lauded Merkel's "extraordinary career."

"It goes without saying that the relationship between our two countries is one founded on many shared values, including a commitment to democracy around the world," Harris said in brief public remarks as Merkel arrived.

Biden has made it a priority to repair America's relationship with its European allies in the wake of Trump's antagonistic approach to the bloc, which was marked by punitive tariffs, diplomatic slights and red-hot debates over multilateralism and NATO.

‘Trump is gone,’ but lingering: As Biden vows ‘America is back,’ allies wonder for how long

Trump clashed repeatedly with Merkel, and before his term ended, he ordered a drawdown of U.S. forces from Germany in what many viewed as a public rebuke of her. Biden has halted that reduction of forces, and during Thursday's news conference, he stressed the partnership between Washington and Berlin as Merkel prepares to leave office.

"In part this is a farewell visit, in part she is signaling continuity and stability in the German-U.S. relationship,” said Johannes Timm, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think tank in Berlin.

After 16 years working with Merkel, many officials in Washington and elsewhere are wondering what course Germany might take after the next election. The longtime chancellor's objective was to reassure them that there won’t be a huge shift, he said.

Merkel's party is leading in polls ahead of Germany’s Sept. 26 election, but the environmentalist Greens and the center-left Social Democrats are also vying to lead a future government.

Contributing: Associated Press

More: Trump blasts US ally Germany as 'captive to Russia' in tense opening of NATO summit

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden suggests decision on US-Europe COVID travel to come within days

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