Although the newly proposed vaccine certificate should not be considered a second passport, the European Commission’s tool conceived to ease free movements restrictions – and save the summer season – still raises concerns ranging from discriminatory aspects to its medical validity.
The general idea is simple: the Digital green certificate presented by the Commission on Wednesday (17 March) provides evidence that people have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the COVID illness, enabling them to travel freely within the EU while staying safe.
The EU executive was tasked by the European Council with coming up with such a proposal in February and EU leaders will assess the job done so far at a summit on 25-26 March.
But the devil, as so often, is in the details. Here is what we know so far about these certificates and six open issues.
1. Timeline is tight
The aim is to have the certification system up and running before summer. But this time frame is considered quite ambitious, considering how long it usually takes to approve legislative proposals.
“You’re calling us ambitious. Well, that’s a compliment to the Commission,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
But beyond slogans, the time for reaching an agreement between the two co-legislators, the European Parliament and the Council representing the EU-27, is extremely limited.
Von der Leyen has already met the Parliament’s political leaders, saying it is up to them to decide how quickly they want to move forward.
Although there is the risk that the green certificates may not ever see the light, there is no other plan in the pipeline to cope with travel restrictions and avert the fragmented scenario that we already saw last year.
Time is of the essence not only for the law-making process, as there are other technical aspects to sort out before the launch, and that has to run in parallel with the interinstitutional negotiations.
A Commission official explained that the system’s gateway needs to be developed by April-early May, while the creation of the gateway itself, the open-source software, and connecting member states to the gateway are the other operations that need to be done by June.
To complicate things, an implementing act is required to ensure that the system is implemented in a uniform way across member states.
2. Don’t call it a passport
The Commission has stressed often enough that this is not a second passport but rather proof of vaccination given to citizens that intends to overcome travel restrictions, combined with a common approach on the matter at the EU level.
The Commission’s proposal has nothing to do with regulating borders, which is a national competence of each EU country, but its legal basis relies on the free movement of citizens in the EU.
3. It could lead to discrimination
The general idea is to avoid any form of discrimination since, at least for the time being, not every citizen has been vaccinated and vaccine shots are not available for all.
At the same time, vaccination itself is not a compulsory medical treatment in most EU countries.
“The idea is certainly not to create any privileges for people vaccinated,” said an EU official, adding that for this reason are included also certificates of recovery and test certificates.
This could lead to another form of economic discrimination, as vaccines are free while tests are subject to payments in many countries.
Asked about that, a Commission official said that input fees and reimbursement for tests are matters of national competence, but the issuance of the digital green certificate will be free of charge.
The Commission’s proposal includes an obligation of mutual acceptance when it comes to vaccination certificates.
This means that all EU countries will have to grant the same treatment to people vaccinated with vaccines authorised under an emergency procedure or under a national procedure but not approved by the EU’s medical agency.
4. Medical validity is an issue
Another aspect has to do with the evolving situation with virus variants and the fact that it is not clear how long the protection offered by the vaccine lasts, as recently recalled by the boss of the EU’s infectious disease agency (ECDC), Andrea Ammon.
According to Commission officials, the proposal is provided with built-in flexibility that allows the EU executive to incorporate new scientific guidance via the Health Security Committee, but also guidance from ECDC, which can update the policymakers as they learn more on validity periods of vaccines and tests.
5. It is temporary
“It’s a temporary instrument, we don’t want to prolong that,” said Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, adding that at the end of the pandemic, this instrument will stop.
However, this could become an emergency tool, as the possibility to reactivate the instrument at a later stage, in case of a new future pandemic, is being discussed.
6. Who covers and what it looks like
The digital green certificate will cover EU citizens and their family members as well as third-country nationals legally present in the EU.
The Commission is exploring possibilities to link up the system “to third countries that meet our standards”, as a mechanism to recognise certificates of other countries is embedded in the proposal.
The certificate itself will be presented in the form of a QR code with a digital signature to avoid counterfeit.
Citizens can request either a digital version or a paper certificate, which can be printed as often as they want to avoid the risk of losses.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]