|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
About a year ago, in March 2020, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine faced an unknown crisis, which, although did not cancel the visa-free regime with the EU, reduced its relevance for an indefinite period. On the one hand, for obvious economic reasons, many emigrants have lost their jobs, being forced to return home, where they are still waiting for the European economy to recover. And, on the other hand, epidemiological insecurity in European tourist destinations has discouraged travel for non-essential purposes. Initially, the external borders were sealed, and later quarantine obligations were introduced upon entry into the country, along with the preventive and repeated testing.
In addition to normalizing the use of certificates establishing the absence of COVID-19 infection, the EU is actively discussing the possibility of setting up a new type of electronic document, which is to restore circulation within the EU as early as the summer of 2021. This is called the "green digital certificate" representing a sort of "green pass" for travel within and to the EU. For the time being, this type of document is intended strictly for European citizens or people residing in the EU. European officials do not intend to use the "green pass" as a precondition for traveling or entering the EU. Such a precaution lies in one legalistic reasoning regarding the non-discrimination of the unvaccinated European population and another very pragmatic one - facilitating the return of international tourists. For the same reasons, including a geopolitical one, the visa-free regime with the EU enjoyed by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine requires an adaptation to the principles of operation of the future "green pass", as soon as they are finalized.
From "re-open" the EU's internal borders to "green pass"
The pandemic has substantially influenced the technical possibilities of traveling in the EU. The epidemiological situation required the imperative reintroduction of controls at national borders in the Schengen Area - to stop the spread of the infection. Thus, it has become inevitable to disrupt the movement of European citizens, as well as to limit the flow of people from abroad. This was done based on the decisions of the Member States, which agreed to coordinate their actions (October 2020), with the help of the EU's supranational institutions. Brussels' share of governing the EU's internal and external borders has been minimized, but by no means suspended. On the contrary, the governments of the European states have asked the EU institutions to develop mechanisms to improve and homogenize the principles of intra-European circulation comprising the reducing of non-essential travel (tourism), repeated testing, etc. Only by coordinating steps can the fragmentation of the pandemic response be overcome, and Brussels' centralizing role has been crucial.
One of the main European instruments that facilitate the relaunch of internal traffic is the "re-open EU". This platform provides mutual information on the epidemiological rules in force in each EU-Schengen country. Compliance with the rules is mandatory to cross land or air borders safely. Due to contagion fluctuations at the European level, the rules are subject to incessant changes and updates. This platform makes two sets of data available to the European public. The first set contains information on the epidemiological status in EU countries and the Schengen Area, strictly following the findings of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The second category of data refers to the measures used by EU-Schengen states to counter the spread of the infection. The "re-open EU" instrument does not include the countries that benefit from the visa-free regime - Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine or the countries of the Western Balkans. However, these countries can benefit from the information available on the platform in one of the 24 official languages of the EU, including English, to be able to prepare for a compliant trip to the EU.
Another useful tool that is being developed is the "green pass". The latter is inspired by the anti-COVID-19 vaccination process, without which it is impossible to overcome the pandemic crisis. The EU aims to restore flows of people between the EU-Schengen states through a unique electronic document. This will include information on the status of people concerning the COVID-19 virus: vaccinated, certified with a negative anti-COVID-19 test or certification of recovery (presence of antibodies). By 15 April 2021, in the 14 weeks of vaccination, about 20.4% of the adult population (18+) had been vaccinated with a single dose in the EU, and 7.8% had completed the full immunization process. The further vaccination is advanced, the sooner the "green pass" planned for June 2021 will have to be launched, around the time when the vaccination rate could reach around 40-50% of the EU population.
In a communication with the European Parliament, European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders clarified that the future electronic document is not a "vaccine passport" per se. The data collected on it will be strictly related to COVID-19 and will be used temporarily to cross internal EU borders. The document has broad support among the Member States, but also at the level of the European institutions, provided that any form of discrimination is excluded, including with regard to the type of vaccine administered. Commissioner Reynders also specified that the issuance of the document must be ensured even in the case of vaccines, which do not yet have the approval of the European Medicines Agency (EMC). This remark refers to countries such as Hungary (population of 9.6 million people), which is the only one in the EU where, in addition to the vaccines recognized in the West, both Russian and Chinese vaccines are inoculated. Spain is among the first EU countries to announce that it is preparing for the introduction of a "green pass", which will allow European citizens in possession of the electronic document to enter the country without being tested or quarantined, already in the summer of 2021. Initially, EU countries must designate the competent authorities for issuing and verifying the "green pass" and it is up to Brussels to create the digital infrastructure for document authentication at the European level.
Extension of the "green pass" to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine
The validation of the European "green pass" for visa-free countries has not been discussed in public. The national authorities of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine regularly inform about travel conditions in the EU-Schengen countries depending on the level of infection. The "re-open EU" platform serves as a complete source of information for Eastern European diplomats, who have not yet requested to be included in the European system.
Travel to the EU is possible with the use of certificates with negative tests and quarantine. So far, European officials have nuanced three particularities related to the "green pass" with an optimistic load for third-country nationals, without suggesting any preferential treatment for visa-free countries:
First, the electronic document can be requested from EU states to travel. In this regard, information on the epidemiological status - vaccinated, negative test or recovered - will be required. EU states, not Brussels, will decide whether to issue a "green pass". Second, electronic documents from third countries will be able to be recognized in the EU, if the European model of issuing is followed. The technical features of the "green pass" include the assignment of a code (QR) and an electronic signature issued by the responsible institution in EU countries. This involves technical capabilities in third countries, as well as close cooperation with the EU and the Member States. Third, the favored vaccine is the one authorized at the European level. Nevertheless, Member States will be able to decide individually whether to accept to offer "green passes" for other vaccines, such as Sputnik V (Russia) or CoronaVac (China). At present, they are not approved by the WHO or the EMC, but hypothetically EU countries could accept them in order to attract Russian or Chinese tourists and relaunch bilateral flights. Therefore, the use of the Russian or Chinese vaccine in the Eastern Partnership, together with the Western ones, will not have to impede the possibility to be in the possession of a "green pass".
The above-mentioned issues signal positive prospects for the resumption of visa-free travel from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to the EU at the pre-pandemic levels. Under their special relations with the EU, they have at their disposal the necessary political channels to initiate urgent discussions on the connection to the European "green digital certificate" system, which is being set up. The three countries receive EU-approved vaccines through COVAX, which is heavily funded with European assistance. Moreover, the EU can use the opportunity to extend the "green pass" to Eastern geopolitical allies to stimulate further the vaccination among the skeptical non-European population in the immediate vicinity. As a result, the EU can improve health security at the eastern borders by ensuring a smooth and timely adjustment of the visa liberalization regime with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in the post-vaccination period.
In lieu of conclusions...
After about five years of simplified travel in Europe, for travel, business or temporary family reunification purposes, the citizens of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine had to obey some additional rules. Even though the visa-free regime has remained intact, it has begun to combine national epidemiological prescriptions, adopted by the 26 EU-Schengen countries.
The increasing use of anti-COVID-19 tests, followed by the initiation of the vaccination process at the end of 2020, has so far only partially recovered the attitude towards travel. The gradual restoration of the usefulness of the visa-free regime for Eastern European neighbors can take place through their integration into the "green digital certificate" system. Such a gesture would be in line with the EU's anti-COVID-19 solidarity steps towards these countries. Exactly as the “green pass” is intended for non-EU countries, such as Iceland, Norway or Switzerland, it can be extended to millions of citizens of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, who have been traveling in the EU without a visa since 2014-2016.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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