Monday, 4 October 2010

Travel warning confusion

The United States issued a blanket warning yesterday for Americans in Europe, and I for the life of me can’t figure out what this is supposed to be. As an American living in Europe, I suppose I’m the intended recipient of this message. I’m sitting here at the Helsinki Airport ready to get on a flight to Brussels reading the US state department press release and the accompanying news coverage, and I’m left wondering what exactly the US government is telling me to do.

Despite issuing a blanket warning for Americans to avoid “public places” throughout the European continent until at least next year(what does that even mean?), a state department official on a press conference call today told reporters, “"We're not saying don't travel to Europe. We're not saying don't visit tourist, major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments.” Yet they should register with the local US consulate (even if they’re only in Europe for a few days), avoid wearing or displaying anything that identifies them as American and try not to speak in loud voices with their American accents. Asking an American not to speak in a loud voice is probably as futile as asking an Italian not to talk with their hands, but that’s what they want.

And the reason? At this point it’s pretty unclear. The US says the warning is based on current information from a German national in Al-Qaeda about targets throughout Europe where they are planning to launch a commando attack similar to the one in Mumbai in 2008. But the actual countries under threat keep changing. Originally, according to the US, it was France, Germany and the UK that were under threat. But then the UK came out with its own warning for British citizens, saying the threat covered France, Germany and Sweden. It upgraded the terror threat level for those continental countries to high, while leaving its own terror alert level unchanged. For its part, Belgium is also keeping its threat level unchanged.

The US says they fully briefed EU officials on this, though that account has been disputed by many in Brussels. There is concern that this advisory will badly affect tourism in Europe at a time when economies are struggling. Apparently the US is going to give more information to EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday.

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