With one of the EU's fundamental values frozen for over a year, the Digital Green Certificate paves the way for free and safe movement within Europe in the COVID-19 era. The EESC welcomes the introduction of the Digital Green Certificate as an excellent common standard to minimise complexity for travelling passengers and to facilitate their movement, as long as fundamental rights and data protection requirements are fully respected.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptional shock for our economies, societies and lives. The tourism sector has been severely affected, with 2020 being the worst year on record for tourism. Europe saw a 69% decline in arrivals in 2020 and an 85% decline in January 2021.
In addition, the current crisis revealed that, aside from its economic significance, tourism is also important for Europe in terms of living together and forging a common destiny. The Digital Green Certificate that was proposed by the Commission on 17 March 2021, after collaboration with the Member States in the e-Health Network, aspires to reboot mobility for European citizens.
In its opinion specially drafted to look into all aspects of this policy, the EESC maintains that the certificate will make it easier for passengers to travel, facilitating administrative bureaucracy. However, it is necessary to clarify that the possession of a Digital Green Certificate is not a precondition for the exercise of free movement and that the proposed regulation does not establish an obligation or right to be vaccinated.
This certificate needs to be transparent and it needs to protect our private lives. All travel protocols must be clear and applicable to international travel by air, road and sea, stresses the rapporteur of the opinion George Vernicos.
As has been pointed out by the members of the study group, the opinion stands out as being of crucial importance and a top priority for two reasons. Firstly, it gives citizens hope that they will be able to travel freely and safely in the EU as the summer season is approaching. Secondly, it sends a clear signal to the EU institutions on the need to implement this initiative swiftly. The EU tourism industry employs around 13 million people according to Eurostat and is estimated to lose around EUR 1 billion in revenue per month due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The EESC calls upon the Member States to work together to achieve uniform framework conditions, so that the certificate can be recognised in every EU country. The Committee underlines, however, that the possession of the "Green Certificate" should not exempt travellers from complying with other risk reduction measures imposed by national authorities.
Social and ethical aspects to be taken into account
There are certain major elements linked to this type of travel certificate, said Mr Vernicos. The certificate will provide proof not only of whether a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, but it will also provide results of recent PCR tests and information on a person's recovery from a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
To avoid unequal restrictions on the freedom of movement of those who have not been vaccinated, the EESC supports European governments ensuring easy and free access to testing for all citizens.
Further to that, the EESC highlights the need to speed up vaccination and to invest in educational campaigns about the benefits of vaccination to fight disinformation.
The success of the certificate lies in the hands of national authorities, who must ensure its swift and free of charge implementation, with zero discrimination between EU citizens. Socially marginalised and disadvantaged groups in particular must have access to relevant information. The impact of the "Green Certificate" on these groups must be properly assessed and monitored.
Besides tourism, the Digital Green Certificate will also serve to facilitate business travel. The EESC emphasises that this must not lead to discrimination in the workplace or open the door to wage dumping by employing vaccinated people from third countries in jobs with poor working conditions.
Special attention should be given to data protection. The certificate includes sensitive personal medical data, which makes it crucial for the Member States to have interoperable systems with equally strong data protection provisions. The certificate should therefore be designed in such a way that this information is only visible to the traveller and any third person only sees that the person fulfils a condition.
The EESC firmly believes that the Digital Green Certificate has the potential to become a successful tool for restarting mobility in the EU, as long as it is fully interoperable, secure, verifiable and valid in all EU countries, including Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It will be also available to non-EU nationals who reside in the EU and visitors who have the right to travel to other Member States.