European lawmakers adopted their negotiating position on the European Commission’s proposal for the digital green certificates on Thursday (29 April), paving the way for what is likely to be a tough inter-institutional negotiation with the Council representing the 27 member states.
The green digital certificates were proposed last month by the European Commission as a way to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The document, which may be in digital or paper format, will attest that a person has been vaccinated against coronavirus or, alternatively, that they have a recent negative test result or have recovered from the infection.
However, EU COVID-19 certificates will neither serve as travel document nor become a precondition to exercise the right to free movement, MEPs stressed.
The aim is to reach an agreement ahead of the summer tourist season. Political will to strike a deal is there, as highlighted by the chair of the civil rights committee (LIBE), Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, during Parliament’s debate on Wednesday.
“We need to put in place the EU COVID-19 certificate to re-establish people’s confidence in Schengen while we continue to fight against the pandemic,” he said, stressing that all efforts need to be focused on helping to restore free movement because without it “we don’t have a European Union”.
However, a number of sticking points remain in finalising an agreement on the certificates.
Starting with the name of the document itself, as the ‘digital green certificate’ wording is perceived as too vague by the MEPs.
“Words matter. The certificate was never green and it is only partly digital,” said the Dutch centre-right MEP Jeroen Lenaers, explaining why Parliament is suggesting ‘EU COVID-19 certificate’ as the name for the tool.
Cannot afford to wait
Speaking before the plenary, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders emphasised the need to act quickly to put these certificates in place while agreeing with those MEPs who argued that certificates will have to keep pace with new scientific findings, as the knowledge on the virus is changing.
“We have to live with the fact that there are still scientific uncertainties regarding COVID-19. We do not yet have full scientific evidence about the effects of vaccination or recovery from the virus” he said.
However, Reynders emphasised that the EU cannot wait for all these questions to be answered to start taking action.
“We have to act now by adopting a text that is sufficiently flexible to take these developments into account once more scientific knowledge is available,” he added.
Touching on different strategies used in member states, Reynders said that delays would risk fragmentation across Europe, with a multitude of possibly incompatible national solutions, resulting in a variety of documents that cannot be read and verified in other member states.
“And with it, the spread of both the virus and the mistrust of citizens,” the Commissioner warned.
The EU executive has agreed with the national authorities on a trust framework, thereby basing the digital certificate on common policies and standard technical requirements.
In the approved mandate, Parliament undersigned the Commission’s effort to establish harmonised data sets with the member states through the eHealth Network, which is intended to ensure interoperability and data protection compliance.
Data protection concerns
“The data being included in the certificate needs to be the absolute minimum necessary to produce the effects,” MEP Aguilar stressed, adding that data cannot be collected by a central European database.
Instead, Parliament would prefer if data were only collected by the health authorities that issue the certificate.
The Council seeks to introduce new aspects concerning the use of personal data collected, adding in its negotiating mandate that data may be processed for other purposes, including retention periods.
But both Parliament and the Commission are against this stance.
“Data cannot be used for any other purpose than guaranteeing free movement. They cannot be used internally by the member states for allowing people to go to the theatre or a restaurant or public spaces, only for the free movement of persons,” said Aguilar.
A non-discriminatory price
MEPs also highlighted that tests must not be prohibitively expensive, with many MEPs calling for completely free testing. But convincing member states to yield something on the cost of tests will be an uphill struggle for Parliament.
The Portuguese secretary for European affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, said the EU Council supports free of charge certificates but “the question of accessibility and affordability of the COVID-19 tests is not covered by the Council mandate, nor is any question related to their fees.”
Commissioner Reynders confirmed that issues related to the reimbursement of medical costs such as COVID-19 tests fall within the national competence of the member states.
*Luca Bertuzzi contributed to the reporting
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]