By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The European Union (EU) today floated a proposal to allow some travellers full-vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the bloc, more than a year after slamming shut entry from most non-EU visitors.
Currently, the EU only allows non-essential travel from seven countries with extremely low infection rates: Australia, China, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen presented the new framework. Axios reports that full approval by EU member states could occur by May 7. The proposal includes an ’emergency brake mechanism,’ which would allow the EU to announce future restrictions, in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases from a country. Recently, as a response to the calamitous surge in Indian cases, many countries, including Australia, the UK, and the U.S., have banned all incoming flights from India.
Time to revive 🇪🇺 tourism industry & for cross-border friendships to rekindle – safely.
We propose to welcome again vaccinated visitors & those from countries with a good health situation.
But if variants emerge we have to act fast: we propose an EU emergency brake mechanism.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 3, 2021
The EU is trying to develop a coordinated if not uniform response across the 27 member states to allow for non-essential – aka tourist – travel from non-EU countries, but each EU member state sets its own border policy, and the bloc has struggled to achieve consensus on the issue.
Tourist Industry Pressure
The new EU measures are a response to pressure from its tourist industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic.
The Local It reports that some EU member states had been exploring their own reopening plans before the EU proposal was floated:
Several EU member states have already announced their own plans for reopening, including France which proposes allowing all vaccinated tourists from outside the EU from June 9th, and Spain which is talking to the UK government directly about access for British tourists this summer.
Greece was planning on opening up to full-vaccinated or COVID-tested travellers from mid-May, according to CNN:.
According to the Commission’s press release:
The Commission proposes that Member States lift restrictions on non-essential travel for vaccinated persons travelling to the EU. This reflects the latest scientific advice showing that vaccination considerably helps to break the transmission chain.
Member States should allow travel into the EU of those people who have received, at least 14 days before arrival, the last recommended dose of a vaccine having received marketing authorisation in the EU. Member States could also extend this to those vaccinated with a vaccine having completed the WHO emergency use listing process. In addition, if Member States decide to waive the requirements to present a negative PCR test and/or to undergo quarantine for vaccinated persons on their territory, they should also waive such requirements for vacccinated travellers from outside the EU.
Jerri-Lynn here. The four vaccines currently licensed for use in the EU are Johnson & Johnson Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer BioNTech.
Emergency Brake Mechanism
The proposal allows the EU to close borders again quickly if the epidemiological situation of a country worsens. From the press release:
When the epidemiological situation of a non-EU country worsens quickly and in particular if a variant of concern or interest is detected, a Member State can urgently and temporarily suspend all inbound travel by non-EU citizens resident in such a country. The only exceptions in this case would be healthcare professionals, transport personnel, diplomats, transit passengers, those travelling for imperative family reasons, seafarers, and persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons. Such travellers should be subject to strict testing and quarantine arrangements even if they have been vaccinated.
When a Member State applies such restrictions, the Member States meeting within the Council structures should review the situation together in a coordinated manner and in close cooperation with the Commission, and they should continue doing so at least every 2 weeks.
How Would Travelers Prove They’ve Been Vaccinated?
So, does this mean U.S. travelers can book their European holiday? Well, as they say, it’s complicated.
The Commission is banking on setting up a vaccine passport system – the Digital Green Certificate, proposed on 17 March but not yet implemented. As per the press release:
This should be facilitated once the Digital Green Certificate becomes operational, in line with the rules the Commission proposed on 17 March. In particular, travellers should be able to prove their vaccination status with a Digital Green Certificate issued by Member States’ authorities on an individual basis, or with another certificate recognised as equivalent by virtue of a Commission adequacy decision.
Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, Member States should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
Member States could consider setting up a portal allowing travellers to ask for the recognition of a vaccination certificate issued by a non-EU country as reliable proof of vaccination and/or for the issuance of a Digital Green Certificate.
Children who are excluded from vaccination should be able to travel with their vaccinated parents if they have a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken at the earliest 72 hours before arrival area. In these cases, Member States could require additional testing after arrival.
Alas, the U.S. only currently issues a handwritten, cardboard COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. – and I don’t know how one would go about verifying its validity, on-line or otherwise. This is a system that appears tailor-made for abuse, and I recall seeing a headline – which I’ve not yet been able to find again – under which some U.S. anti-vaxxers are encouraging the forging of these vaccination records. That would seem ridiculously easy to do, well within the capacity of any minimally competent fourteen year old to replicate.
There are whispers that plans are afoot to develop a different U.S. system. Axios notes:
The U.S. is being closely consulted on the European passport, so any future American system will likely use similar protocols.
With the Digital Green Certificate under development – and the U.S. as well as other countries as yet having no verifiable digital systems – what’s a potential tourist hoping to visit the EU to do? It would seem s/he must rely on the procedures individual member states implement for accepting vaccination certificates. According to Forbes:
It’s unclear how such a system will work for tourists from countries like the U.S., which currently does not issue a national Covid-19 vaccination certificate, and is unlikely to do so in the future. The current proposal is also limited to proof of vaccination, whereas the Digital Green Certificate will also allow travelers to submit a recent Covid negative test result or proof that they have recently recovered from the disease.
Changing Criteria to Qualify for Safe Country List
In the same press release, the EU proposes changing the criteria for inclusion in the safe country list, for which only seven countries currently qualify:
Non-essential travel regardless of individual vaccination status is currently permitted from 7 countries with a good epidemiological situation. This list is decided by the Council on the basis of epidemiological criteria contained in the current recommendation.
The Commission is proposing to amend the criteria to take into account the mounting evidence of the positive impact of vaccination campaigns. The proposal is to increase the threshold of 14-day cumulative COVID-19 case notification rate from 25 to 100. This remains considerably below the current EU average, which is over 420. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
So, under the current procedures, that means travellers from the UK would qualify, but not the U.S. According to CNN:
In the latest data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the United States has a notification rate of 258 so would not be added to the safe travel list, but the UK which has a rate of 47, would be considered under the new rules.
The EU foresees that the list of qualifying countries would expand. According to the press release:
The adapted threshold should allow the Council to expand the list of countries from which non-essential travel is permitted regardless of vaccination status, subject to health-related measures such as testing and/or quarantine. As now, the Council should review this list at least every 2 weeks.
The Bottom Line
As much as I want to see the world return to a pre-pandemic normal, magical thinking won’t make that so. Given what’s happening in India and Brazil, I think the EU is being wildly optimistic in opening up to visitors again. Not to mention banking on vaccines as being a more secure guarantee that visitors are COVID-free and pose no transmission risk than is warranted.