Fast-track Procedure Used by European Parliament for Swifter Introduction of Covid-19 Certificate
07 April 2021
The European Parliament announced on 25 March that its members (MEPs) have accelerated the approval of the Digital Green Certificate, which would in principle allow for free movement and safe travel during the covid-19 pandemic. The Commission had published its proposal for this certification on 17 March 2021.
The European Parliament’s MEPs voted by an overwhelming majority, using the so-called ‘urgency procedure’, to fast-track its approval of the Commission’s proposed Digital Green Certificate. During the plenary debate on 24 March 2021, most MEPs supported the creation of this Certificate, the use of which will enable once again safe and free movement between Member States. On 29 March, a key parliamentary committee member, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, commented that a timeframe had been set to “push it forward” and that the proposed certificate could be approved during the session from 7 to 10 June this year. This should pave the way for easier trips between Member States during the height of the summer season.
By means of the proposal, it is envisaged that the Digital Green Certificate can be used throughout the EU. It can also be introduced in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. It may be issued not only to EU citizens but also to their family members, regardless of nationality, as well as to non-EU nationals who reside in the EU, and visitors to the EU who have the right to travel to other Member States.
Several MEPs highlighted during the plenary debate that notwithstanding the positive aspects of having such a certificate in place, there would be a need for strong data protection safeguards on personal and medical data of individuals. They also stressed that individuals who have not been vaccinated must not face discrimination. Indeed, the proposed scheme has faced resistance from some Member State governments over concerns of discrimination against those still waiting for a vaccine, given the slow progress of inoculations EU-wide.
Under the proposed scheme and in the case of vaccinations, all EU Member States would be obliged to accept the certification as proof of this. The obligation would be limited to vaccines that have received EU-wide marketing authorisation. Nonetheless, EU Member States would be permitted to decide whether or not to also accept other vaccines. Until now, following positive assessments by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Commission has given conditional marketing authorisation to four vaccines. These have been developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen Pharmaceutica NV.
Free movement within the EU has been impacted by restrictions imposed by EU Member States to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as obligatory quarantine, self-isolation and testing for travellers. The absence of standardised and secured formats of documentary evidence demonstrating that travellers have been tested for or vaccinated against COVID-19 can lead to unnecessary delays and obstacles. To address these concerns, the European Commission has proposed the establishment of an EU-wide framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of vaccination certificates, test certificates and certificates evidencing that a person has recovered from COVID-19. Thus, the proposed Certificate would cover three types of COVID-19 certification, namely (i) vaccination certificates, (ii) test certificates, and (iii) certificates of recovery.
Pursuant to the Commission’s proposal, the Digital Green Certificate will be available free of charge to every person staying or residing in Member States who have the right to travel to other EU Members States. The Certificate will be issued in a digital form or on paper and will include a QR code containing a digital signature that will be verified using a gateway built by the European Commission and software developed by EU Member States. The European Commission has also emphasised that the introduction of the Certificate will not require EU Member States to reintroduce controls at internal borders.
In relation to test certificates, only the results of NAAT tests, including RT-PCR tests, and rapid antigen tests will be eligible for certification under the Digital Green Certificate.
Although non-essential travel to the EU is currently restricted from third countries with limited exceptions, Hong Kong traders who are non-EU nationals and may travel to the EU can obtain a Digital Green Certificate. This Certificate should be requested from the EU Member State that Hong Kong traders are travelling to by providing the necessary information, including proof of vaccination. In the medium-term, the European Commission may issue an adequacy decision if it is satisfied that a third country issues certificates in compliance with international standards and systems which are interoperable with the EU system. Following such a decision, these third country certificates would be accepted under the same conditions as a Digital Green Certificate.
As next steps, it is noted that the European Parliament plenary will adopt its mandate for negotiations with the Council of EU Member States, which could include amendments to the Commission’s proposal. This will take place at the next plenary session, scheduled for 26-29 April 2021. The outcome of the negotiations between the Parliament and Council will have to be endorsed by them and adopted into law.
The Digital Green Certificate is considered a temporary measure that will be suspended once the World Health Organisation declares the end of the COVID-19 international health emergency.