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A million Europeans obtain EU Covid health pass ahead of vote

More than one million Europeans have obtained the new EU Covid health certificate being rolled out in each country to unlock travel within the bloc, the European Commission said on Tuesday.

A million Europeans obtain EU Covid health pass ahead of vote
A policewoman at the Bregana border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia scans QR code on a EU's digital Covid passport on June 2, 2021. (Photo by Denis LOVROVIC / AFP)

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders announced the figure to the European Parliament ahead of a vote to enshrine the scheme in law in time for the continent’s all-important summer tourism season.

It is expected to be passed by a big majority after agreement between MEPs and the EU’s 27 member states on details, with the vote result known early on Wednesday.

The certificate, also known as a Covid health pass or Covid immunity pass, is to be used for intra-EU travel from July 1st, which would then spare travellers the need for quarantine or further testing for travellers.

It will show the bearer’s immunity to Covid-19 either through vaccination or previous infection, or their negative test status.

But the commission wants as many EU countries as possible to start earlier. But it relies on countries launching their own digital Covid passes that can be recognised across the EU. The EU will not produce its own app. Some countries are further ahead of others.

A spokesman for the EU Commission told The Local: “Every member state will need to develop their national implementation for the EU Digital Covid Certificate. National wallet apps could be developed, but are not the only option. Integration in existing tracing or other apps, commercial solutions, digital storage of PDFs and of course paper certificates are also possible.”

Justice Commissioner Reynders said: “The more certificates we can already issue, the easier the process will be during the summer — otherwise, we risk a big bang on the first of July, which we cannot afford.”

READ ALSO: How will the EU’s Covid passports work for travellers?

Nine countries

As of Tuesday, nine EU countries were already issuing the certificates — including the sunny tourist destinations of Greece, Spain and Croatia. It is also being trialled in parts of Germany.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania and Poland were the others.

“More than a million citizens have already received such certificates, and many more will follow in the next weeks and months,” Reynders said.

The EU Digital Covid Certificate can be presented either in digital format, on a smartphone for example, or printed out on paper.

It features a QR code for verification, which border officials and venue staff can use to check against digital signatures stored securely in Luxembourg servers.

Only minimal data of the bearer are included on the certificates, to prevent identity skimming, and the EU legislation surrounding their use is due to expire after a year, so that they do not become a fixture with potential Big Brother uses in the future.

EU lawmakers and capitals also agreed that, when it comes to proof of vaccinations, only the jabs authorised by the European Medicines Agency — so far those from BioNTech/Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — would be accepted in all EU countries.

But individual countries can also decide to accept, for their territory only, others, such as one produced by China, or Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

Money and concessions

To prevent discrimination against the unvaccinated — particularly younger Europeans who have not yet been able to access jabs given in priority to the elderly — much emphasis has also been put on testing.

The parliament failed to make Covid tests for travel free of charge, but extracted money and concessions from the European Commission to make them more affordable.

Reynders said work was ongoing to also expand the use of the EU Digital Covid Certificate so that it is accepted beyond Europe.

Talks have been under way with the United States, for some sort of mutual recognition of vaccination status.

But have run up against the problem that there is no single federally backed certificated in the US, only a myriad of state and private vaccination cards almost impossible to authenticate abroad.

Member comments

  1. To share something good, I watch this youtube channel myself: A Voice In The Desert And recommend to anyone wanting to learn more.

    Please get both doses of the vaccines and use a mask at least till everyone has both doses, preventing covid-19 deaths and damage.

    1. So happy to see Europe is implementing a vaccine passport so tourist destinations can return to some form of normalcy. I live in Orlando, FL USA and I have been vaccinated and given a CDC QR code proof of vaccination. The author of the article mentioned that while up to 70% of Americans have been completely vaccinated or at least have one of two doses and have a QR code, our CDC cards are administered by state governments, not the federal ( national) government. I hope President Biden ( sane , instead of our insane former president) will implement a national vaccine for those citizens that request one. I have friends in Sweden I have not visited in years, and was hoping to visit last summer. Maybe in the fall vaccinated US citizens can visit EU nations an spend our dollars to help industries that rely on tourists to survive.

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POLITICS

‘A stupid prank’?: Why has Austria vetoed enlargement of Schengen area?

Austria voted against Bulgaria and Romania joining Europe's control-free travel zone, the Schengen area - although it did accept Croatia's entry. What are Vienna's arguments for rejecting the major expansion of the zone?

'A stupid prank'?: Why has Austria vetoed enlargement of Schengen area?

On Thursday, EU members were set to vote on enlarging Schengen, the borderless area within the continent, by adding three new members: Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

All three are already European Union members, meaning their citizens enjoy the freedom of movement rights within the bloc. So, Croatian, Bulgarian or Romanian citizens can already live and work in Austria if they want.

The Schengen zone is a separate agreement, one that also includes non-EU members. Within the area, there are no border controls (with certain emergency exceptions, such as what happens when there is a terror threat or during the pandemic).

So if you travel from Austria to Italy, for example, you won’t need to show any documents on the Italy-Austria border because both countries are a part of the Schengen zone.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Austria?

However, if you travel from Austria to Croatia, a very popular summer destination, you can drive right through the Austrian-Slovenian border but will have to show proper travel documents when crossing to and from Croatia.

This is set to change in 2023, though, as Croatia did get the unanimous approval it needed to join Schengen. Austria vetoed the joint application of Bulgaria and Romania, though.

Schengen ‘does not work’

A few hours before the decisive meeting of EU interior ministers, Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) had reiterated Austria’s ‘no’ to Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen area, as reported.

At a joint press appearance with the European People’s Party (EPP) leader, Manfred Weber, Nehammer pleaded on Wednesday evening in Vienna for the decision to be postponed until next autumn. Weber understood Austria’s worries and concerns but not the veto.

READ ALSO: Tents for asylum seekers stir debate in Austria

During a brief press appearance, Nehammer underlined Austria’s arguments that the Schengen area “does not work”. If Austria, as an internal Schengen country, had already picked up 75,000 unregistered migrants this year, this was a “security issue that we cannot wipe away”, he said.

Austria’s Interior Minister Gerhard Karner echoed the statements ahead of the meeting. 

“I think it is wrong that a system that does not work in many places should be enlarged”, he said.

Austria, which is experiencing a strong increase in asylum requests, fears that admitting Bulgaria and Romania would increase irregular immigration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who are the asylum seekers trying to settle in Austria?

A protester hold the Austria flag as police block a rally against Covid-19 restrictions – many of these protests had a nationalistic root. (Photo by Yann Schreiber / AFP)

A critical issue at home

Immigration is a hot topic in Austria, especially since the migrant crisis of 2015-16. Many credit the strong stance against migration taken by the centre-right ÖVP and, in particular, by its young and popular leader Sebastian Kurz for the good results the party had in national elections – eventually putting Kurz in the top Chancellor position. 

The wunderkind would later fall from grace amid allegations of corruption, but his party still leads Austria and many of its provinces.

Even as the migrant wave of 2015-16 passed (and much of the promises made by far-right leaders of what would happen to an Austria that accepted migrants did not come to pass), the issue continues to feed domestic politics. 

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

Austria’s ÖVP, in the federal coalition with the left-leaning Greens, has maintained a tough stance on migration, but not as hard as some might want. The far-right FPÖ, however, continues to make extremist statements and build on islamophobia and xenophobia speeches.

“The issue is fuelled by riots like the one in Linz, tent debates, rising asylum numbers, and border protection debates. This creates fear”, said Christoph Haselmayer from the poling institute IFDD.

“And plays into the hands of the FPÖ”, he added.

READ ALSO: ‘Inhuman speech’: Austria’s far-right blasted for wanting to tie social benefits to German skills

Domestic criticism

Prior to the meeting of EU interior ministers, criticism of Interior Minister Karner’s stance came from the SPÖ and NEOS, but also party colleague and Vice-President of the EU Parliament Othmar Karas (ÖVP). A Schengen blockade would not contribute to solving the asylum problem and had nothing directly to do with it, they said. 

Mixing the two was “irresponsible and unspeakable”, Karas said.

The former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Scharzenberg was equally harsh in his criticism of Vienna’s veto. 

“It’s blank domestic policy. I appreciate Austria’s role in the Balkans. But this veto is a stupid prank. Hopelessly self-centred. Austria is disregarding its historical duty to take on these countries.” Schwarzenberg said in an interview with the Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Could Austria ever change the rules to allow dual citizenship?

Why did Austria vote in favour of Croatia?

With Croatia, there is a different story. Austrian authorities have supported the country’s accession, saying that Croatia has proven it has strong border controls and would protect the Schengen borders. 

Recently, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović told Croatian media that he expected Croatia to become a zone member on January 1st, 2023. “Since the beginning of our accession to Schengen, Austria has supported our entry. Nothing has changed there”, he said.

He said he evaluated Austria’s tough stance on Schengen enlargement as more of a “domestic political calculation to keep the migration issue simmering”.

READ ALSO: Five European cities you can reach from Austria in less than five hours by train

Currently, Croatia is not part of the route taken by many Middle-Eastern asylum seekers, who mostly enter Austria after passing through Turkey, and Southern Balkan states and finally crossing Hungary into Austria. 

At the same time, Croatia is, as mentioned, a popular destination for Austrian tourists in summer – and the frequent traffic jams they face might not be enough of a reason for the authorities to approve Croatia’s bid, but will undoubtedly make it a more popular decision among many Austrians.

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