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EU leaders consider vaccine passports

February 25, 2021

EU leaders are meeting to address the slow pace the bloc's vaccine rollout, division over border closure policies and the introduction of vaccine travel certificates.

European Council President Charles Michel delivers a speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels
Mediterranean countries are keen on the idea of vaccine passports as a way to restart tourismImage: European Union/Xinhua/picture alliance

Leaders from across the 27-nation bloc convened via videoconference on Thursday to thrash out joint approaches to the COVID-19 crisis.

The topics of discussion included unilateral border closures and restrictions, the slowness of the EU's vaccine rollout and the thorny issue of so-called vaccine passports.

The issues discussed

Vaccine passports: Tourist-reliant southern European nations such as Greece and Spain urged the rapid adoption of an EU-wide vaccination certificate for travelers.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed the idea in an appearance on the online television channel of Germany's Bild newspaper. He said it would enable a restart to free travel in Europe and could help "secure and protect" struggling sectors like the arts, sports and gastronomy.

Manfred Weber, the head of the conservative bloc in the European Parliament, has called for a speedy rollout of a vaccine passport in order to allow freedom of movement in the EU.

"[A] vaccination passport is crucial and is immediately necessary," Weber told DW. "We have to speed up because currently [only tens of thousands] of Europeans are vaccinated every day."

Trying to sort out the paperwork retroactively, Weber said, could prove either difficult or impossible. He suggested issuing a document when people receive their jab.

Greece has indicated it is ready to move faster than its EU peers. It has already reached a bilateral travel agreement with Israel, which has led the world with its vaccination campaign.

Other countries, such as France and Germany, have shown more reluctance, with officials saying it would create de facto vaccination obligation and could prove discriminatory.

Officials and diplomats warned on Wednesday that, although they supported a verifiable vaccination record, it was too early to examine the use of vaccine passports to permit easier travel.

One senior diplomat was quoted acknowledging that all EU countries were "eager" to find a safe way to reopen travel but said "we have to move this forward together."

Merkel and the COVID crisis

Border closures: The EU has warned six governments, including Germany, about unilateral border restrictions.

The European Commission has said the recent closure or partial shutting of frontiers by several EU countries to curb the spread of virus variants is disproportionate.

The EU has written warning letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden, asking about their measures. It has given them until late next week to respond. 

One EU official was quoted by the AFP news agency before the meeting said he expected "quite a lively discussion between the member states" on the issue.

Vaccine rollout: After a slow start to the bloc's vaccination campaign, the EU leaders' debate focused on both the speeding up of vaccine authorizations and the boosting of production rates.

The aim is to do this by creating new manufacturing facilities and cutting delivery bottlenecks.

According to a draft statement, the leaders were expected to say that the crisis was far from over — particularly as the production and supply of vaccine lags.

"We need to urgently accelerate the authorization, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination. We also need to enhance our surveillance and detection capacity in order to identify variants as early as possible so as to control their spread,'' said a draft statement cited by The Associated Press.

Weber, however, defended the slow pace of Europe's vaccination drive compared to progress seen in other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States, saying that delays are due to a "security first" and "shared liability" approach. While the UK and US are entirely liable for anything that could go wrong, both Pfizer and AstraZeneca share the liability with EU countries. 

"We have another approach. We say security first. The liability is fully in the hands of the British state. In our case, in the European case, Pfizer and AstraZeneca also have liability," he told DW.

js,rc/msh (AFP, Reuters)