Europe considers reopening its borders to fully vaccinated tourists and to those from low-infection countries

The European Union could start allowing significant amounts of nonessential travel onto its turf as soon as next month, largely because of recent evidence showing vaccines help to break the COVID-19 transmission chain.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said a week ago that the fully inoculated would be welcome—as long as their jabs were EU-approved—but the Commission’s formal proposal on Monday also talks about letting in travelers from countries with low infection rates.

The proposal also says people might be allowed to enter if they have been fully dosed with vaccines that have cleared the World Health Organization’s emergency use listing process, even if they don’t have EU conditional approval yet. That’s currently a moot point, though: The WHO and the European Medicines Agency have both cleared the same vaccines, namely those from AstraZeneca/Oxford, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

“In addition, the Commission proposes to raise, in line with the evolution of the epidemiological situation in the EU, the threshold related to the number of new COVID-19 cases used to determine a list of countries from which all travel should be permitted,” the EU’s executive body said. “This should allow the Council to expand this list.”

Coordination attempt

The Council of the EU is a key legislative player in the EU, representing all of its 27 member states. And this is where the big caveat comes in—the Commission won’t necessarily get what it wants.

The Commission has spent the pandemic trying to get EU countries to coordinate their policies on travel. It has successfully promoted a coordinated approach to the treatment of the EU’s external borders—the entry ban that it’s now trying to wind down—but policies on travel within the EU have been more chaotic. Talks on the introduction of the Digital Green Certificate (the so-called vaccine passport) are also still ongoing, months after they began.

In its Monday statement, the Commission said the EU’s Digital Green Certificate—and other countries’ vaccine passports, if they are recognized by the Commission—would make it easy for EU member states’ authorities to figure out who should be allowed in without quarantine or a negative PCR test.

“Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, Member States should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity, and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data,” the Commission said. “Member States could consider setting up a portal allowing travelers to ask for the recognition of a vaccination certificate issued by a non-EU country as reliable proof of vaccination and/or for the issuance of a Digital Green Certificate.”

Under the proposal, member states would agree to let in people who received their final vaccine dose at least two weeks previously. Unvaccinated kids traveling with them would have to bring a negative PCR test result from within the previous three days. (BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin last week predicted vaccines will start to be made available to children in Europe in June.)

Emergency brake

Some EU countries may view the decision to allow in people from low-infection states as highly risky.

After all, India was having a relatively good pandemic until it wasn’t. Now, its diabolical COVID crisis has led countries around the world to slam their doors on Indian arrivals.

The Commission seems aware of that concern. “The emergence of coronavirus variants of concern calls for continued vigilance,” its statement read. “Therefore as counterbalance, the Commission proposes a new ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, to be coordinated at EU level and which would limit the risk of such variants entering the EU. This will allow Member States to act quickly and temporarily limit to a strict minimum all travel from affected countries for the time needed to put in place appropriate sanitary measures.”

The EU’s member states will start discussing the Commission’s proposal on Tuesday. And while this attempt at a coordinated reopening is debated, some countries won’t be hanging around for a conclusion—Greece is opening up to tourists on May 15.

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