EU prepares re-opening of borders for summer tourists

21 May 2021

Because of notable advances in vaccination in countries such as the USA or Israel, the European Union plans to significantly ease COVID-19 entry restrictions for fully-vaccinated tourists from third countries in the coming weeks. On Thursday, EU Trade Ministers approved a European Commission proposal from 3 May, which intends to loosen the definition of “safe countries.” As part of the redefinition, for restrictions on non-essential travel to be lifted for a given third country, the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the past 14 days is being raised from 25 to 75, while other assessment criteria such as a 4% positive rate remain in place. 

At the same time, to respond to the risk posed by new variants, the detection in a country of variants of interest, such as the Indian variant, should now also be considered together with variants of concern. Meanwhile, the agreement in Council is not legally binding, giving national authorities significant leeway in how and whether  to implement of the changed rules. 

According to Wednesday’s agreement, fully-vaccinated persons will be allowed to enter the EU two weeks after their last shot if they can present a valid vaccination certificate. Reciprocity, specifically whether vaccinated EU citizens can also enter the respective third county should also be taken into consideration. The agreement applies to all persons that have received an EU-approved vaccine, which currently are Biontech/Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. 

However, EU countries can decide for themselves whether to continue to impose testing or quarantine obligations on vaccinated persons. Meanwhile, if the COVID-19 situation in a third country worsens dramatically within a given short period, a sort of “emergency break” is foreseen. In such circumstances, a strict entry ban is to be imposed immediately, with only a few exceptions.

In parallel, negotiations on the EU Digital Vaccination Certificate (originally Digital Green Certificate) between the European Parliament and the Member States reached a political agreement on Thursday evening. “White smoke: we have a deal on the Commission’s proposal on the EU Digital Covid Certificate,” Justice Commissioner Reynders wrote on Twitter. The certificate aims to simplify travelling within the EU this summer and ensure as much a return to freedom of movement as possible. The certificate is supposed to be counterfeit-proof evidence of a COVID-19 vaccination, a negative test or for having recovered from a previous infection. It will be available both in a digital and paper format and contain a digitally signed QR code.  

Despite intensive discussions, prior negotiation rounds had remained inconclusive, with disagreements ranging from, among others, what status newly tested people should have and who should pay for the costs of tests. While the European Parliament advocated for free tests, however, not all Member States wanted the Parliament to interfere as this falls within their own competencies. Also, at issue was whether the certificate automatically means freedom to travel in Europe, or whether and how, EU states could continue to restrict it. 

In the end, the Member States prevailed. The compromise now stipulates that, in certain cases, additional travel restrictions may be imposed by the Member States if they are backed up by scientific evidence. In addition, tests will not always be free of charge. However, the EU Commission wants to make €100 million available to part-finance tests. Furthermore, Member States will have to put in place national systems that work across the EU. The Commission will continue supporting Member States in finalising their national solutions for the issuance and verification of the EU Digital COVID Certificate, and will provide a so-called gateway that enables cross-border queries. 

The EU Digital Certificate should be in use by 1 July, with several Member States already running national pilot schemes. Member States will also have a six-week phasing-in period if they require more time to set up and align their national systems. Under its governing Regulation, the Certificate will remain in place for one year to prevent any long-term potential for discrimination.