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The European Commissions Digital Green Certificate
As vaccine rollout gathers pace across Europe and lockdown restrictions are eased, the European Commission is pushing to introduce a 'Digital Green Certificate' (DGC) to facilitate international travel to boost tourism in the European Union. However, several political, legal, and security hurdles to the implementation of a DGC remain.
The introduction of an EU-wide DGC ahead of the tourist season in June is increasingly likely as member states (MSs) seek to revive non-essential travel from overseas.
Several national solutions to the challenge of resuming cross-border travel have emerged in recent weeks across the EU. In France, national authorities plan to buttress the TousAntiCovid contact tracing app with verified vaccination or coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) virus test results to enable international travel. Germany, Estonia, and Denmark are also developing their own national solutions.
However, a mosaic of national systems that are not sublated into an EU-wide solution risks undermining the resumption of international travel within the EU. To address this issue, the European Commission in May launched a pilot test in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, SAP, and five MSs. The proposed system would connect national databases to an EU gateway, allowing holders of national vaccination certificates, COVID-19 test certificates, or proof of recovery from COVID-19 to obtain a DGC. The DGC certificates would then serve as a 'passport', allowing its holders to travel freely within the EU as well as Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, which are likely to be included in the scheme. The DGC is especially favoured by EU MSs that rely on tourism for revenues such as Spain, where tourism accounts for around 12% of GDP. Such countries are pushing for the launch of DGC ahead of the tourist season in June.
The successful implementation of the DGC across the EU risks being undermined by political challenges and low public support.
While many countries have strongly favoured a fast-tracked solution, other MSs such as Germany and France have voiced scepticism over the potential for the DGC to be discriminatory towards people who refuse vaccination for health or other reasons. One potential solution to the question of discrimination is the provision of universal and free-of-charge COVID-19 testing, something which the European Parliament has advocated as a precondition for the DGC.
The caution of some MSs is reflected in, and compounded by, an incipient fault line between the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, which adopted formal positions on the DGC on 14 April and 28 April, respectively. The Council, for example, maintains that lifting travel restrictions must remain the prerogative of national governments, while the European Parliament states that DGC holders ought to enjoy exemption.
The success of the DGC would also be contingent on public support and high download rates for national apps connected to the EU gateway. In Germany, only 41% of respondents backed the national scheme, a result likely driven by privacy concerns, and in France, only one in five people downloaded the TousAntiCovid app. If such a trend persists, it would risk rendering the DGC obsolete.
Different interpretations of DGC criteria and additional requirements at the national level risk impeding a uniform application of the proposed regime.
Another political obstacle concerns the exact criteria requirements to obtain a DGC, notably which vaccines should qualify for certification. Greece currently allows tourists who have received vaccines not yet approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), including Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm, to enter the country without the need to self-isolate. Spain, however, will wait for an EU-wide consensus to emerge before it welcomes non-EU tourists. Hungary is in a unique position within the EU as it is the only MS to authorise and administer the Russian and Chinese vaccines without EMA approval. This has created an incentive for the Hungarian government to seek supplemental bilateral deals for international travel unless DGC requirements also include said vaccines.
Divergent epidemiological developments and inoculation rates across the EU will therefore increase the risk of supplementary requirements at the national level, or different interpretations of the DGC to accommodate unique national situations and economic interests, thereby hampering the uniform application of the measure and creating regulatory confusion for travellers.
The effective implementation of an EU-wide DGC would require close coordination with the United Kingdom to reflect the special post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland.
The effectiveness of the DGC will depend on border checks to authenticate certificates. Such a provision would potentially entail introducing a physical border infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a prospect with significant ramifications for political stability and civil unrest in this part of the UK. When a similar proposal was mulled in January to stem COVID-19 vaccine exports from the EU to the UK, the backlash from London, Belfast, and Dublin forced the Commission to immediately backtrack.
The timing of any proposed introduction of border infrastructure for the DGC would also be key, given that high levels of violent protests in Northern Ireland typically occur in June and July. Any solution, therefore, is likely to require close engagement with the UK on Northern Ireland and possibly regulatory equivalence regarding the validity of vaccine passports.
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