Sometimes, one sentence is enough to stir a strong public debate, cause confusion and even provoke negative reactions. The latest example was the European Council’s call, on 26 February 2021, “for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates.” Just a day later, incorrect interpretations of this one-liner started to be made in Serbia, particularly as the Serbian President described the EU’s latest initiative as “anti-European”. From then on, he was joined by Serbia’s Prime Minister who argued that such decision would be “opposite to European values”, while the Interior Minister claimed that this move represents “the end of European solidarity.” The key argument of this blog is that such aggressive rhetoric of Serbian officials against the EU has no basis in reality whatsoever, particularly as the proposed vaccination certificates are not the same as the COVID-19 vaccination passports. By showcasing that the logic behind the functioning of the vaccination certificates and vaccination passports is fundamentally different, the following paragraphs aim to remove the fog of confusion regarding this matter.
The general idea of vaccination passports entails that the travel to the EU would be conditioned on whether or not a person in question had already been vaccinated. By preventing non-vaccinated foreign visitors from setting foot on the EU’s soil, the intended goal would be to stop the spread of the virus among the local EU population. Yet, if the vaccination was mandatory for entering the EU, this would consequently prevent most of foreigners from travelling to the EU at all. This would be the case as many parts of the world have yet to start the vaccination process, while others will need more time to vaccinate their entire population. This would therefore not only further damage EU’s tourism, but more importantly, it would indeed turn the EU into an isolated island. It is unsurprising that there has not a single endorsement of such rigid policy from any EU official or EU leader. In fact, France, among others, has even explicitly refused the possibility of introducing anything of such sort. The creation of vaccination passports therefore appears only to be a matter of wild imagination, or a result of intentional attempt to mislead the public.
In contrast, the logic behind the introduction of the vaccination certificates is completely different. Namely, by allowing unconstrained travel to the vaccinated people the intention of a joint EU vaccination certificates is to restore the freedom of movement, and not the other way around. Importantly, the vaccination would not become a prerequisite for entering to the EU, but rather a shortcut. In that case, the introduction of easier travel to the EU to those that have already been vaccinated, would not go at the expense of those that have not yet done the same, as the latter would continue facing the current travel restrictions. As many EU member states are strongly dependent on tourism, there is hope that the tourism rates could be revived during summer of 2021. It is therefore understandable why the Prime Minister of Greece, a leader of country with the most extensive coastline in the Mediterranean, was among the first ones in the EU to call for the introduction of such vaccination certificates, all while being supported by other costal countries such as Portugal and Malta. In sum, the introduction of ‘fast travel lanes’ would emulate the already introduced ‘green lanes’ which allow quicker transport of medical and other essential goods in and out of the EU, without disallowing other goods from being traded in traditional manner.
One may ask if this is such a good idea, why is the EU taking it so long to implement it. Well, the key dilemma is based on the fact that there is still no evidence that a vaccinated person cannot be infected and thus transmit the virus. With this in mind, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warns that there is insufficient evidence to exempt travellers with proof of vaccination from quarantine and/or testing. For the same reason, the German Ethic Council disagreed with the idea of introducing exceptions from restrictions for vaccinated people. The current restrictions encompass having a negative PCR test at the border, doing a rapid post-arrival PCR test at the border, or introducing quarantine requirements. In case the EU member states do not manage to agree on swiftly implementing a joint vaccination certification system by summer, even the vaccinated persons will have to continue complying with the already existing cross-border measures aimed at reducing risk of spreading the virus.
Meanwhile, as a second-best option, the EU is likely to find it easier to facilitate vaccination certificates for medical purposes. This is something that the Romanian President, for example, has opted for. In that regard, the European Council even agreed, on 21 January 2021, “to work on a standardised and inter-operable form of proof of vaccination for medical purposes”. In order to usher the path for development of such kind of a certificate, the EU’s eHealth Network published, soon after, guidelines for making the contents of the vaccination certificates uniform, and establishing a minimum dataset for each certificate. By standardising the certificates for medical purposes, which would document whether and when someone was vaccinated, the hope is that this will better equip the EU to jointly tackle the pandemic, and thus make further steps towards the Health Union. How exactly, and for what purposes the EU will implement the vaccination certificates will become clearer in the next three months, when it is expected for the Commission to fully sort out the technical development of an interoperable system on the EU level.
All in all, although the matter may seem complicated on the first hand — it is rather simple. The EU is not trying to develop a vaccination passport in order to prevent foreigners from entering its borders, as it was originally claimed by the Serbian officials. Introducing such option would be counterintuitive and irrational for the EU, particularly from the perspective of tourism-reliant member states. What it is trying to do, is to manage the crisis and better facilitate the inflow of those who already have received a vaccine. This showcases that the citizens of Serbia do not need to worry about them being prevented from entering the EU in case they have not received a vaccine. As long as they comply with the current restrictive measures, they will be eligible to enter the EU. Yet, this fear is likely to remain alive, as the government officials of Serbia have already done the damage with their unwarranted statements. It now up to the EU to remind Serbia of its EU commitments, and to send a strong message that the deliberate attempt to mislead the Serbian public, at the expense of EU’s image, will not be tolerated.