The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a great deal about taking things for granted. Our personal and professional lives have been turned upside down.
Last year, in a matter of weeks, we went from enjoying the first days of spring to social and physical distancing as the general rule. And suddenly, many of us found ourselves facing closed borders, when previously we barely noticed passing from one country into another.
The absence of internal border controls has been one of the biggest achievements of the European Union. It was so successful that it became natural to many and few could imagine an EU without it.
Nevertheless, we have had to learn the hard way that freedom of movement and the Schengen area are precious achievements that we need to protect.
In the absence of a harmonised response, a patchwork of travel restrictions has prevailed, with closed or only semi-open borders, passenger locator forms, tracing apps and more.
Despite the best intentions from EU governments and the Commission, Member States could agree on nothing more than a commonly coloured map of risk areas.
Now the Commission is having another go. The proposal for EU COVID-19 Certificates (Digital Green Certificates) aims to take a coordinated approach that allows Member States to mutually recognise and verify if a person has been vaccinated, has tested negatively or has recovered from the virus.
“The certificates can be a relevant tool to help free movement, but they must never become a pre-condition for it. The pandemic will not disappear with these certificates, so we have to use them with public health always in mind”
How does this help free movement? Member States would be in a position to remove additional restrictions such as quarantine, isolation or tests, for certificate holders and in doing so making travel easier.
This brings us right to the heart of the debates we are currently seeing in many Member States, including my own: what rights and freedoms can certificates bring in light of the ongoing, but far from completed, vaccination campaigns?
It is clear that the principle of non-discrimination needs to be one of our guiding principles, while we also strive for a return to a fully-functioning Schengen area and people exercising their right to freedom of movement.
The certificates can be a relevant tool to help free movement, but they must never become a pre-condition for it. The pandemic will not disappear with these certificates, so we have to use them with public health always in mind and in line with the latest available scientific data.
They must be very specific in time and scope and must always adhere to our highest data protection standards, especially as this is a question of highly sensitive and very personal medical data.
That is why the S&D Group in the European Parliament tabled important amendments on purpose limitation, data protection and a strong sunset clause after 12 months and it is welcome news that Parliament’s strong position includes these commitments.
In addition, I am glad that Parliament is taking a strong stance on the cost of testing. To avoid discrimination, we have to offer alternatives to vaccination certificates. We can only overcome the pandemic with a successful vaccination campaign that includes everyone who is willing to get a jab.
“We have had to learn the hard way that freedom of movement and the Schengen area are precious achievements that we need to protect”
However, the reality is that we are not there yet and test and recovery certificates offer a viable alternative.
But tests can be expensive, especially if they have to be done on a regular basis, which is the case for many cross-border commuters or seasonal workers.
We have to be realistic: pricing of medicines or health technology is not an EU competence (not yet at least). Nonetheless, the Parliament should be ambitious and demanding of the Member States to get around the table to finally agree on long-overdue coordination and cooperation when it comes to travel restrictions.
Providing harmonised free testing could be a much-needed aspect of making the most out of the certificates.
The pandemic is still very real and the only way to protect public health is by rolling out the vaccine as quickly as possible.
But with many Europeans enjoying free movement for whatever purposes pre-pandemic, the certificates could provide an opportunity to give them back this right and provide reasonable safety without impeding the ongoing fight against the pandemic.
They could be the first step in our long way back to the open and free EU that we love and that we are so used to.