EU Digital COVID Certificate: A quid pro quo for travelling

Whilst the responses of the World Health Organization and the EU to the Covid-19 pandemic seem to be aligning, there is still uncertainty as to the facilitation of free movement not only within the EU but also internationally. In this blogpost, Raluca Nedelcu and Lucky Belder argue that governments worldwide have adopted measures without concern for their long-term impact on the global economy and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Public health measures such as the EU Digital COVID Certificate should take their impact on international relations into account and, in particular, measures adopted by governments should not create discrepancies and unfair advantages at an international level.

In the past year and a half, the Covid-19 pandemic has been imposing tremendous challenges on states, which have resulted in a multitude of measures that have been adopted across the world, especially by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the EU.

Although the aims of both seem to be aligning, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how these are going to be implemented to not only facilitate free movement across the EU but also internationally. We see furthermore that governments, all over the world, have adopted measures without concern for their long-term impact on the global economy and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In view of these Goals, the measures implemented to protect public health should take the impact on international relations into account. In particular, measures adopted by governments should not create discrepancies and unfair advantages at an international level. In light of that, the WHO has highlighted that the availability of health-related technologies and treatments, including vaccines, forms an essential part of the right to health, the right to development and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and applications. Further, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development argued for global partnership and international cooperation, especially in the areas of science, technology and innovation.

For its part, the EU has stated that the efforts of the WHO will be taken into account regarding the establishment of guidelines for using digital technologies to document vaccination status; however, on the 17th March 2021, the EU launched a union-wide proposal for an EU Digital COVID Certificate with the overall aim to facilitate the freedom of movement across the Member States while controlling the spread of the Covid-19 virus. In the following section, we unpack its key features.

Key features of the EU Digital COVID Certificate

The Certificate will provide, in essence, proof that a person has either been vaccinated, had a recent negative test result, or recently recovered from Covid-19. The certificate will be available only for citizens and residents of EU Member States, free of charge, both in digital and paper format. The authenticity of the certificate will be guaranteed by a QR code.

The Regulation will enter into force on 1st July 2021 and, beforehand, a digital gateway will be available across all Member States to check the data contained by the certificates. The proposal lays the groundwork for the technology’s future interoperability and intends to ensure compliance with data protection principles. The EU Digital COVID Certificate will store the information about any vaccine, including name, validity and vaccination centre, on the condition that it has been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

While the certificate is an EU-wide initiative, some disparities would be inevitable in practice, namely regarding entry requirements, quarantine and acceptance of vaccines that have not been approved by the EMA. Indeed, Member States will retain the freedom to decide if certain travel restrictions will be waived for the holders of a certificate.

Implementation of the EU Digital COVID Certificate framework

The European Commission’s proposal mentions a ‘trust framework’ that will represent the base for the infrastructure of the Certificate. The ‘trust framework’ is the basis for establishing and ensuring the certificate’s authenticity, integrity and validity. The EU Commission recently confirmed that the Certificate will not represent a pre-condition to travel.  Also, open source reference software is made available to the Member States to be able to develop the national infrastructure. The eHealth Network will be in charge of establishing this infrastructure but there is a lack of details concerning the technical solutions that will be used.

As noted above, the Member States can decide whether or not certain travel restrictions will be waived for EU citizens holding an EU Digital COVID Certificate. However, the EU Parliament advised that holders of the certificate should not be subject to additional travel restrictions such as quarantine, self-isolation or testing. Nevertheless, Member States are allowed to impose additional travel restrictions if they are necessary and proportionate, as well as based on epidemiological data provided by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Protectionist v. protectionism

The adoption of measures such as the EU Digital COVID Certificate represent a solution for the freedom of movement, as well as for the opening of the economies. Nonetheless, given the uncertainty regarding the accessibility of vaccines, there are still concerns with regards to developing countries. Even if the EU Digital COVID Certificate does not represent a pre-condition to travel, this could still be an issue for countries that do not have wider Internet access or the necessary technological infrastructure to support the platform. Hence, this creates imbalances in the recovery process.

The Member States of the EU have prepared considerable economic packages to support the citizens and the re-opening of the economy; while developing countries that have limited resources are at risk of economic recession and have little to no access to the developed countries. The limited availability of vaccines and reliance on solidarity to receive them creates inequalities between countries.

In the same order, regardless of the EU Parliament’s advice to not create inequalities, such protectionist measures resulted in certain countries wanting to loosen the restrictions for people who have been vaccinated or are EU citizens (e.g. Denmark, Romania, Luxembourg, Greece) to be able to open the economy, which some may consider an unfair restriction to those that have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated or have no access to a vaccine that is approved by EMA. 

Beyond the EU Digital COVID Certificate: A path forward

The Certificate might represent a ticket for EU citizens’ freedom of movement, but it also represents a controversy at the international level. It is uncertain how this will impact the relations with other countries, access to the technology and how travel will be conducted with residents from countries that have limited access to EMA-approved vaccines in the coming year.

In light of that, the EU has stated that Member States should ensure ‘universal, accessible, timely and free of charge testing’ to avoid inequalities. Further inequalities might arise for people that decide not to get vaccinated and that will be obliged to get tested before travelling. Despite the EU’s advice, at the moment, the only valid Covid-19 tests accompanied by a travel certificate are not free and sometimes only available in commercial facilities. Similarly, the prices for such tests vary in each Member State (e.g. across the EU prices range from 50€ to 150€) Also, this could lead to further inequalities if only certain Member States would offer free travel Covid-19 tests.

To sum up, the EU Digital COVID Certificate can be a good option to compile all the necessary data for travelling and facilitate free movement of people but despite the EU’s advice and recommendations, there is still uncertainty as to how this certificate and its application by Member States will affect the relations with third countries. This issue needs to be addressed to ensure sustainable and fair relations between the EU and third countries, as well as ensuring that any protectionist measure that is being adopted is targeted and temporary. Discrepancies among states should be avoided at all costs and a more inclusive approach that promotes accessibility and a resilient economy should be adopted. 

Raluca Nedelcu is student assistant at Utrecht University’s Centre for Global Challenges