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German businesses wants US travel eased

Arthur Sullivan
July 14, 2021

Germany has invested trillions in the US over the years. And Germany's economic footprint is everywhere in the country. But US pandemic restrictions continue to hinder business travel to the country from the EU.

Lufthansa A330-300 jet taking off
Image: Bayne Stanley/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

German-owned companies stretch out across the United States, from coast to coast, north to south and almost everywhere in between. According to the US State Department, American affiliates of German firms employ around 900,000 US workers.

Germany is the one of the biggest providers of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the United States. The German-US business relationship is one of the strongest and most enduring of any two countries in the world. But the Biden administration's decision to reinstate and persist with stringent pandemic travel restrictions on EU citizens is frustrating German business leaders.

Last week, the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), which represents the country's machinery manufacturing industry, sent a letter to the US embassy in Berlin urging the country to allow its citizens to travel more easily across the Atlantic.

VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Volkswagen's plant at Chattanooga, Tennessee. German companies have a huge presence on US soilImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Lesser

"Business travel to the USA must once again be possible without restrictions. The US government is currently locking out European business travelers," Ulrich Ackermann, the VDMA's foreign trade specialist, said in a statement. "It is incomprehensible that the Schengen states are still classified as high-risk areas by the United States."

Rough ride for business travelers

Back in March 2020 in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump introduced restrictions barring Europeans from traveling to the US. He lifted them before he left office, but President Joe Biden reinstated them swiftly.

The EU had similar rules but since mid-June this year, US travelers have been able to travel relatively easily to the Schengen area again due to high vaccination rates and low coronavirus case numbers.

There are exceptions to the US ban. American citizens and green card holders can travel. Others may qualify for a National Interest Exception (NIE) if they are deemed to be working in areas involving "critical infrastructure" or "significant economic activity." Such applications can be made to US embassies and consular offices abroad.

Ulrich Ackermann from industry group VDMA
Ulrich Ackermann from the German VDMA trade associationImage: VDMA

According to Ackermann though, the NIE exception is of little help. He says it only applies in "certain exceptional cases" and generally does not apply for Germans wishing to travel to meet customers or clients, or for trade fairs.

He says the situation is most critical for Germans (and other EU citizens) with temporary work permits and residence rights in the US, known as nonimmigrant work visa holders.

"They may only apply for the NIE exemption after entering Germany or they must have stayed in a non-Schengen country for 14 days before returning," he said.

That means a German engineer working at a car plant in the US could return to Germany, but the route back would be long, complicated, costly and unsure. Adding to the problem is that there are no exceptions for fully vaccinated people.

Graphic of business air travel

Losing new business

Before the pandemic, flights to the US from Germany were packed with business travelers on a daily basis: executives meeting clients, technical experts visiting factories, workers returning from trips back home. The virus understandably brought that to a halt but the fact that 18 months later, such trips are still largely barred is a source of deep frustration.

"It hinders us to do the business the way we are used to," said Carl Martin Welcker, managing director at Schütte, a German manufacturer of machine tools. The firm is headquartered in Cologne but operates a major facility in Jackson, Michigan.

He told DW that the restrictions hit businesses in various ways, from experts being unable to travel to assist with technical issues, to new business being lost due to the difficulties of meeting potential clients in person.

He says remote working solutions have helped ease the difficulties, but that with both case numbers and vaccination rates on a similar level in the EU and US, it would be preferable if routine business travel were possible again.

While the NIE exemption can be used, he says it is often impractical. "It is time consuming; it is full of bureaucracy. Most of the time you need an invitation letter from customers and they are hesitant to do that because they are not used to it. They don't know what they are dealing with," Welcker said.

Calls on Merkel to press the issue with Biden

Ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's meeting this week with President Biden in the White House, German business leaders hope she will press the issue with her counterpart.

"The EU and the German government are challenged here to dissuade their partners in Washington from their blockade," said Ackermann.

Joe Biden and Angela Merkel at their G7 meeting in Cornwall, UK
Chancellor Merkel will meet President Biden at the White House on ThursdayImage: Adam Schultz/White House/Planet Pix/Zuma/picture alliance

Germany is far from alone in calling for an easing of restrictions. Last month, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU's top diplomat in Washington, said Brussels was working hard to have the issue resolved and said it was a mistake that European business leaders could not personally oversee their US investments.

He also pressed the issue of Europeans working legally in the US being unable to return with ease, even if they are fully vaccinated.

"We have to be able to kickstart our economies again, together," he said at a trade event in Washington, D.C.

Business groups criticize US travel restrictions