SIM Report: EU digital green pass likely to help restore cross-border travel

SIM REPOrt: southern europe, issue 7

On 17 March, the European Commission (EC) unveiled proposals for the EU ‘Digital Green Certificate’ (also referred as the ‘digital green pass’), which will be free for users, non-discriminatory, and available in both digital or paper formats. The Digital Green Certificate is effectively a type of vaccine passport, offering proof to officials in destination countries that a traveller has been fully vaccinated against coronavirus (COVID-19). The announcement was positively received from the wider business community and is generally seen as a kickstart measure that will help re-open national economies.  

For vaccinated travellers, mandatory quarantines upon arrival and other restrictions on travel can be avoided. The digital green pass will involve three separate certificates: a vaccination certificate that will specify which vaccine was used, the number of doses received, and place of inoculation; negative test certificates (PCR or rapid antigen test); and medical certificates for people who have recovered from COVID-19 in the last 180 days. Digital Green Certificates will also hold very limited personal information such as the name of a user, date of birth, and date of issuance. In order to prove their valid vaccination, holders would need to show they were vaccinated with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency. Beyond EU members, the scheme will be open to countries such as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The proposal requires approval by the European Parliament (EP) and the EU Council before being formally adopted. Non-EU nationals residing in the bloc will be able to apply for the relevant certificate, which will be include a QR code to ensure security and authenticity. Members states may still require digital green pass holders to undertake quarantines, but they are required to provide an explanation and justification to the EC in those circumstances. The EC has also said it was working to ensure the certificates are compatible with systems in non-EU countries. EU-based airlines expectedly welcomed the proposal for the digital health pass and are calling for its rapid implementation.  

Adopting an EU-wide vaccine pass has generated some controversy, particularly around the issue of equality. Critics argue that it will unfairly discriminate against non-vaccinated individuals, which will be particularly visible in countries experiencing difficulties in accessing sufficient supplies. Belgium and France are among the countries that have raised concerns over the measure. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also expressed resistance to the certificate as it claims that vaccinations should not be a condition for travel. The EU has responded to these claims by clarifying that free movement will also be accessible for people who can present negative tests and medical certificates. Greece was the first EU government to advocate for an EU vaccination passport as tourism-dependent countries view the streamlining of such a scheme as vital to the restoration of cross-border travel.

EU officials are seeking to fast-track the proposal at the EP in a bid to accelerate adoption of a ‘binding instrument’ before the summer period. In the event that the Digital Green Certificate system fails to gain the necessary approval in the EP and Council, then more countries will likely resort to bilateral agreements on travel corridors to attract foreign visitors. For example, Greece and Cyprus agreed to allow entry for tourists from Israel who can prove their ‘COVID-negative’ status through Israel’s ‘green’ digital certificate. In 2020, the Greek tourism sector was devastated by COVID-19, with revenues falling to EUR4 billion from EUR18 bn in 2019. In Denmark, the government announced a joint initiative to develop digital COVID-19 passports to facilitate business travel. Iceland also began issuing digital vaccination certificates in January to restore travel between countries. Without an EU-wide scheme, there lies potential for significant complexity in travelling as requirements will vary depending on whether or not an origin country has a bilateral agreement with a destination country.

Despite the urgency in adopting the scheme, some diplomats have tempered optimism that it can be streamlined quickly. This is due to the technical challenges in harmonising different national infrastructures and ensuring interoperability. Furthermore, the legislative process required means before the proposal becomes regulation it must pass through national parliaments, possibly delaying its adoption until after July.

On the normative level, it presents an opportunity for EU member states to present a united front and demonstrate a strong commitment to facilitating a return to international travel. Having a uniform system also limits the potential for fraud; across Europe there have been numerous reports of fake vaccines and COVID-19 test certificates circulating and available for sale. This threat risks undermining legitimate immunisation efforts and disease-containment measures.

Wider adoption of vaccine passport-type schemes forms part of a global trend, and while serious concerns remain, a safe, non-discriminatory scheme is one of the few tools policymakers can rely on to facilitate travel. More countries outside the EU will likely adopt similar mechanisms later this year. While the overarching priority governments now face is securing sufficient supplies of vaccines and distributing these effectively, the widespread desire to re-open borders will likely soften criticism of the Digital Green Certificate in the coming months. Like in Greece, the tourism sector in France is crucially important and initiatives that will harmonise and simplify travel conditions will be welcomed by businesses across a multitude of sectors. However, the positive economic potential the digital green pass can have will largely depend on when it can be successfully adopted and whether the EU can substantially accelerate the pace of vaccinations.


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