For nearly a year now, we've been monitoring the shift toward enabling digital "passports" that will allow at least some people - those wealthy and/or fortunate enough to get their hands on the vaccine - to continue traveling and going about their lives as normal, while others are forced to continue living with COVID-inspired restrictions, potentially for years.
According to a draft plan leaked to the FT, Brussels has proposed the creation of a COVID certificate to allow EU citizens who have been vaccinated, who have recently tested negative, or who can provide proof of recovery to move around the bloc more or less freely. Member states have been battling over whether a digital vaccine "passport" is appropriate, with countries like France arguing that a passport would discriminate against the poor.
Meanwhile, states like Greece and Spain, which are desperate to revive their faltering tourism industries, are arguing that the passports are essential for the economic salvation of millions of Europeans.
Notably, officials in Brussels are wary of using the term "passport". But at this point, the march toward their adoption seems inevitable.
Brussels officials have stressed the certificate would not be a “passport” but a common system to help governments co-ordinate travel measures as vaccination programmes are rolled out across the bloc.
Additionally, there's been some debate about which jabs should be approved. They're leaning toward allowing states to set their own rules in a way that prevents any state from being forced to admit people who received an "unauthorized" vaccine.
Governments have also been divided over which vaccines should be eligible after countries such as Hungary have allowed the use of Russian and Chinese jabs before they have been formally approved by EU regulators.
The commission’s draft text says all vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency should be automatically recognised by other member states under the certificate. But governments would also have the power to recognise jabs such as Russia’s Sputnik vaccine as valid if they so wished.
It means countries that rely on tourism would not be prohibited from allowing in EU travellers who had received as yet unauthorised vaccines. But at the same time an EU official said: “No member states will be forced to recognise non-authorised vaccines."
Member states would also be allowed to strike their own travel pacts with other non-EU nations.
EU governments would also be able to strike bilateral travel agreements with non-EU countries as long as they were approved by the commission beforehand, said the document. The tourism industry has been lobbying European governments to introduce common standards for travel amid concerns that the current system of country-by-country rules is confusing and putting people off booking.
Airlines have been pioneering these types of digital systems as they require customers to be tested and prove their COVID status, which is fortunate, since Brussels will likely need that proof of concept to develop its own program. With the AstraZeneca vaccine creating more delays for the EU's vaccination campaign, the bloc likely won't be anywhere near herd immunity by the end of the year.