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View from Brussels: Covid passports trigger more EU infighting

The EU wants to roll out a ‘green certificate’ before the summer tourism season begins in earnest in order to boost travel plans and get the Schengen zone back on its feet. However, governments and lawmakers do not exactly see eye to eye on Covid passports.

EU officials insist that the proposed document is not a ‘passport’, per se, merely an interoperable proof of vaccination, negative test or recent infection. However, in pursuit of editorial brevity, most publications quite fairly refer to it as a passport.

Many of the EU’s southern members rely heavily on tourism - countries such as Croatia, Greece and Spain in particular took a substantial battering last summer - and the Covid passport is designed to help get people back on beaches and visiting UNESCO sights safely.

There is a problem.

As with every set of rules crafted by the EU, its various institutions have to agree on how to deploy it. The Commission came up with a proposal, the Council of member states had their say and now the Parliament will vote on its position today.

MEPs want the rules to guarantee free Covid tests - a crucial part of guaranteeing freedom of movement, they say - for no additional restrictions to be imposed, such as quarantines, and for the document only to cover vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency.

“We cannot agree to another patchwork of measures whereby every member state just does as it pleases,” said Dutch lawmaker Sophie in ‘t Veld, who helped draft the Parliament’s position.

Governments differ in their outlook and insist that any decisions on lifting additional measures and authorising non-sanctioned jabs should be left up to them, as the EU in theory has no power to set health policy.

The Council left open the door for vaccines that have not secured EMA-approval because some of its members are either using or planning to start using Russia’s Sputnik jab and China’s Sinopharm shot.

Hungary is currently inoculating people with both, despite neither drug manufacturer lodging an authorisation request with the EMA, while the likes of Austria, Croatia and Slovakia are also eyeing supplies of the jabs.

Whether the Covid passport will be usable outside of the EU is another point of contention. The likes of Norway and Switzerland will be eligible to join, while the UK has reportedly made no effort yet to get in on the act.

It is likely that British tourists will have to rely on whatever deals the British government can broker with its mainland counterparts, although the pace of the UK vaccine rollout and its tourism spending power will doubtless make those deals easier to arrange.

Once the European Parliament has formally agreed on its stance, all three institutions will have to negotiate what the final set of rules should be. The idea is to have the legal details wrapped up by June.

From a technical standpoint, the Commission’s digital department is leading the work on actually building the architecture, which will use data provided by the EU’s disease centre and be centred around a QR code and paper version.

The EU has a mixed track record of pulling off this kind of tech feat: attempts to build a common coronavirus tracking app last year fell apart rapidly, mostly due to political constraints, while another scheme designed to keep border crossings functional for essential goods and freight services proved to be very effective.

Closing borders during the initial outbreak, stumbling on personal protection equipment purchasing and botching the vaccine procurement effort, to some extent, are all recent red marks in the EU’s copybook. 

Setting up a Covid passport - which will be largely redundant once EU countries have inoculated enough people, remember - has all the hallmarks of another scheme that will suffer from familiar EU-infighting.

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