While the European Union strives to accelerate its vaccination campaigns against COVID-19, the European Commission has just put the Digital Green Certificate on the table, a proposal that, according to the entity, will allow the reopening of the region before the summer.
Euronews interviewed EC Vice-President Margaritis Schinas to learn more about what many call the "vaccination passport", how the community group is dealing with the setbacks in the supply of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies and if the EU will reach the immunization level that you initially anticipated for the summer.
Euronews: Vice President, thank you very much for being with us. We have seen that the certificate includes only vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). What about Member States that already have other types of vaccines, including those from Russia or China? Does it mean that travelers from these countries are not eligible for this digital certificate?
There are two things. First of all, the certificate not only includes proof of vaccination, but also includes proof of PCR tests. It also includes proof of recovery from COVID-19, if that is the case. So it is not mandatory to be vaccinated to travel, you have to check one of the three boxes.
So people who are from Hungary, for example ...
Now, as for vaccines not approved by the EMA, the proposal says that of course the vaccines approved by the EMA must appear on the certificate. But we also opened an option that would allow member states that have authorized vaccines not approved by the EMA, to include them in the relative box, provided that the destination member state accepts this vaccine as equivalent protection.
And what happens to travelers from third countries who will not have access to this EU certificate?
We open a proposal to recognize certificates issued by third countries as long as they reflect the same level of information and trust as ours. And I think this is perfectly feasible because many of the countries around us use vaccines approved by the EMA.
Once we move on to this recognition of certificates issued by third countries, we would inevitably also have to review the issue of our recommendations for non-essential travel from third countries.
Of course we all know that tourism is a very important element, that some Member States like Greece, Cyprus or Italy, which are economically dependent on tourism, want these certificates to go ahead quickly. ** But at the same time, with COVID cases still very high across Europe and putting pressure on healthcare systems, isn't it a bit premature or optimistic to talk about tourism and certificates? **
I do not think there is a risk for countries to receive citizens who travel with the certificate that proves one of the three boxes. It would be a risk if we had people traveling without any of these three guarantees. In other words, if you have not been vaccinated or do not have a PCR test or do not have the antibodies, then it is better not to travel because you are a potential risk for others. So, no, we don't see it as a risk. On the contrary, we see it as a risk mitigation element, if you will.
But will this certificate be ready for the summer? We have seen that when it comes to coordination, Europe does not do very well. We have seen this with COVID-19 digital applications, because Member States have made individual decisions. What makes you think things will be better this time?
First, because it is a legally binding instrument. So it will be firmly based on EU law. It is not a recommendation. Secondly, I believe that there is growing convergence, both among the Member States on the need for such a tool. So yes, I think there is reason for optimism that it will be ready before the summer.
When do you foresee it?
Summer starts on June 1, and we have another date, May 17, which is the date our British friends have announced that they will resume international travel. I think this is a notion of time that, realistically, we should be aiming for.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen threatened to ban the export of vaccines, especially to the UK. Do you think this is because Europe is losing the vaccine battle, especially the UK?
No, I don't think Europe is losing the vaccine battle. I think there is a lot of noise around the European vaccination program. Nor do I believe that the president has presented this initiative in terms of a ban. I believe that this is a reciprocity initiative that should be understood in conjunction with the export authorization plan that we have put in place since the beginning of February. We need to know how many doses are leaving the European Union and where they are going. And this knowledge also allows us to match the obligations of other third countries in terms of their obligations to feed European markets with exports.
So you are saying that the UK does not respect its obligations ...
Yes, I think it is known that so far the European Union as such has authorized the export of some 40 million doses of vaccines to the rest of the world, to 35 countries. This is part of our European way of life. This is what we are. We do not work only for Europe. We have international obligations, but it is also known that from the United States and from the United Kingdom, exports to the European Union were zero. So we think it makes sense to combine the knowledge we already have from the export authorization system with this reciprocal work. And not to close, not to prohibit, but I would say simply as an incentive for international cooperation.
But, in the end, are you satisfied with the rate of vaccination in Europe when we see, for example, how fast the United Kingdom, the United States or Israel are going in this field?
There is a problem in Europe. There was a problem in Europe at the beginning of the year where one of the EMA approved vaccines, a company was unable to match its contractual obligations with its capacity.
I assume the company you are referring to is AstraZeneca. The most controversial pharmaceutical ...
Yes. We are in constant contact with the pharmaceutical company and with others, and we are very happy that the deficiencies on that side are being compensated with more doses from other companies. So I can say that we are on the right track. Our goal is to have 300 million doses by the end of June and to have the majority, 70% of the adult population in Europe, vaccinated by the summer. These goals are within our reach.