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EU proposes coronavirus passes to allow people to travel freely in region by summer

The European Union's executive body proposed Wednesday issuing certificates that would allow EU residents to travel freely across the 27-nation bloc by the summer as long as they have been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or recovered from the disease.

Measure could help avoid quarantines, testing requirements, but some argue it's premature and discriminatory

A man walks inside a terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy-en-France, near Paris, on Feb. 5. A summit of EU leaders next week will discuss a plan that would allow European citizens and residents — vaccinated or not — to travel freely across the 27-nation region by the summer. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

The European Union's executive body proposed Wednesday issuing certificates that would allow EU residents to travel freely across the 27-nation bloc by the summer as long as they have been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or recovered from the disease.

With summer looming and tourism-reliant countries anxiously awaiting the return of visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission foresees the creation of certificates aimed at facilitating travel between EU member nations. The plan is set to be discussed during a summit of EU leaders next week,

"We all want the tourist season to start. We can't afford to lose another season," European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova told Czech public radio. "Tourism, and also culture and other sectors that are dependent on tourism, terribly suffer. We're talking about tens of millions of jobs."

The topic of vaccine certificates has been discussed for weeks and proved to be divisive. The travel industry and southern European countries with tourism-dependent economies like Greece and Spain have been pushing for the quick introduction of the measure, which could help people avoid quarantines and testing requirements.

But several member states, including France, argued that it would be premature and discriminatory to introduce such passes since a large majority of EU citizens haven't had access to vaccines so far.

Vaccination won't be precondition to travel

To secure the adhesion of all member states, the commission proposed that its so-called Digital Green Certificates, which should be free of charge, would be delivered to EU residents who can prove they have been vaccinated, but also to those who tested negative for the virus or have proof they recovered from it.

"Being vaccinated will not be a precondition to travel," the commission said. "All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU and this applies regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. The Digital Green Certificate will make it easier to exercise that right, also through testing and recovery certificates."

According to data compiled by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, less than five per cent of European citizens have been fully vaccinated amid delays in deliveries and production of vaccines.

The European Commission, however, remains confident it can achieve its goal that 70 per cent of the EU adult population is vaccinated by the end of the summer.

A cat looks on as pedestrians wearing face masks walk in Plaka, a district of Athens, on March 9. Tourism-reliant countries like Greece are anxiously waiting for the return of visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the travel certificates "will help boost tourism and the economies that rely heavily on it." Europe's aviation industry urged EU governments to ensure the passes are operational in time for the peak of the summer travel season.

Hope for lifting travel restrictions

The commission proposed that all vaccines rubber-stamped by the European Medicines Agency should be automatically recognized, but also offered governments the possibility to include vaccines like Russia's Sputnik or China's Sinovac, which haven't received EU market authorization.

The European Commission guaranteed that "a very high level of data protection will be ensured," and said the certificates will be issued in digital format to be shown either on smartphones or paper.

EU officials also hope that vaccine certificates will convince the member states that have introduced travel restrictions aimed at slowing the pace of new infections to lift their measures.

The EU's executive arm has previously warned six countries that their travel-limiting measures, which in Belgium go as far as a ban on non-essential trips, could undermine the core EU principle of free travel and damage the single market.

The commission said the certificates should be suspended once the World Health Organization declares the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If agreed upon by the EU leaders, the proposal will need to be approved by EU lawmakers to enter into force.

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