E.U. proposal would allow vaccinated American tourists by the end of June
By Michael Birnbaum,
Yoan Valat EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The European Union on Monday announced a road map to allowing vaccinated people from outside the bloc to travel to Europe, foretelling a more normal and connected continent after more than a year in which its boulevards and beauty have been off-limits to most of the world.
The proposal, which could be in place by the end of June, will give hope to travelers from the United States and other countries with aggressive coronavirus vaccination programs who are eager to return to some of the globe’s most popular destinations.
Europe would grant fully vaccinated people and their children the chance to visit, regardless of the coronavirus outbreak levels in their countries. Unvaccinated citizens of non-European countries would be allowed to visit as the health situation improves in their countries.
“We propose to allow entry to the E.U. for nonessential reasons,” said European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz, “for all people who have received the last recommended dose of an E.U.-authorized vaccine.”
The bloc would at the same time create a mechanism to halt travel quickly from countries with new concerning variants of the coronavirus, in effect setting up a system that is far more open than now but could also snap shut if needed.
Some European countries, including Greece and Iceland, have already given the green light to U.S. travelers. But the vast majority of countries in Europe remain closed to nonessential travel.
The E.U. has been working for months to set up an internal system to ease travel restrictions within the 27-nation club and others that take part in its border-free travel zone. Monday’s announcement was intended to show how that system could be adapted to include other countries.
Europe’s system is “a new tool to secure information about covid-19 and about the situation of each and every citizen in relation with covid-19,” Didier Reynders, the top E.U. official charged with setting up the system, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“When it is possible to travel to Europe in the first phase, it must be possible to prove at an individual level that you are vaccinated,” Reynders said.
He said that by going first in designing a travel system, Europe would be setting a standard. The bloc wants to rule out frauds while respecting privacy, he said.
For countries that will work with Europe, including the United States, he said, “our goal is not to ask to do the same as us, but to give us the same level of certainty.”
The proposal is still subject to change and will ultimately need the approval of E.U. member states in addition to the European Commission, the bureaucracy that wrote it. But tourist-dependent southern Europe is pushing hard for reopening to travel, after a dismal and devastating pandemic year. And because border-free movement within the E.U. depends on cooperation among members, they have an incentive to coordinate.
But there remain many questions, including exactly how visitors would prove their vaccination status and how the system would address privacy concerns.
Skateboarders in the area of Munich where the world’s largest “Oktoberfest” beer festival is held.
For now, the proposal envisions that travelers who have official confirmation that they are fully vaccinated will be able to submit that proof to European authorities in exchange for entering. Travelers might still be subject to quarantines or other tests depending on the decision of their destination country, but they would not face the blanket ban that is currently in place.
The proposal announced Monday does not address what vaccinated people can do once they’re inside Europe, just who would be allowed to travel there. Already, though, some individual European countries, such as Denmark, have begun deploying vaccine passports that allow special access to shops, concerts and other semipublic spaces.
Europe’s travel plan as currently designed would anoint winners and losers.
Many Israelis would get clearance because they are leading the world in vaccinations.
Vaccinated Chinese tourists — many of whom will have received Chinese-made vaccines that are not yet approved in Europe — wouldn’t receive special treatment, although they could still visit if China’s overall pandemic situation remained under control.
British travelers — who are among the most frequent visitors to the E.U. — could be in a sticky situation because their leaders have prioritized spreading a single dose of vaccine among as many people as possible rather than focusing on getting people fully vaccinated with double doses.
And travelers from the many poorer countries whose vaccination efforts are slow or faltering — in part because richer countries have purchased most of the initial doses — have the potential to be left out.
The European Commission said it was giving special consideration to vaccinations because of emerging scientific evidence that people who are vaccinated are not just personally protected from illness but are also far less likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Europe’s internally focused effort to ease travel restrictions between countries has put less emphasis on vaccinations, partly to avoid the perception of a vaccine mandate. Policymakers have eschewed the term “vaccine passports” and instead talked about “green certificates.” E.U. travelers would be able to show that they have been vaccinated, had a recent negative coronavirus test or have recovered from the disease itself, conferring immunity for at least some time.
A museum employee walks inside the Sistine Chapel on the occasion of the Vatican Museums’ reopening on Monday.
A version of that system is expected to be running in the largest E.U. countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, by the end of May.
“We need a single certificate which is valid in all member states, which can get rid of this cacophony of different measures that prevent people from moving freely,” said Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is leading that body’s negotiations of the draft rules about coronavirus travel documents.
The policymakers behind both the internal E.U. effort and the international travel proposal announced Monday say they are trying to balance security and privacy.
But a coalition of data privacy advocacy organizations, as well as Italy’s official data privacy regulator, have expressed concerns about what they say are a lack of protections against surveillance and privacy safeguards.
At the same time, some elements of vaccination passports, such as QR codes, have proved easy to forge, as The Washington Post found when it examined New York state’s version.
The threat of fraud is real, Reynders said
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.