Will the Digital Green Certificate be a way out to current travel restrictions within the EU? An insight for the Netherlands and Belgium

In the past couple of weeks, several European Member States launched an initiative for the introduction of a vaccination passport/certificate with the aim of making cross-border travel within the EU possible again without the need for testing and quarantine.

Southern European countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Italy and Portugal that depend heavily on tourism, have been vocal in their support for the introduction of a digital vaccination certificate/passport. Greece has already signed an agreement with Israel that allows travellers who have already received the vaccine to enter without any additional testing or quarantine.Denmark, Sweden, Czechia, Estonia, Iceland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland all support the initiative and suggest for a European-coordinated approach to a vaccination passport.Rather critical voices were raised about this approach by Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Romania who are not entirely convinced. One of the points raised was that the effectiveness on reducing transmissions of the vaccination is yet unknown.The European Commission recently agreed to use a digital certificate instead of a digital passport. The certificate will be used to ensure free mobility and travel within the EU again not only for people who have already been vaccinated but also for people who have been tested negatively or proven recovery from Covid-19. This three-pronged approach prevents discrimination against people who are not yet due for vaccination.

Proposal of the European Commission: Digital Green Certificate

On March 17, 2021, the European Commission adopted a legislative proposal establishing a digital green certificate with the aim of restoring non-essential travel within the EU for its citizens. It will also be issued to non-EU nationals who legally reside in the EU and to visitors who have the right to travel to other Member States.The Digital Green Certificate will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 with an EMA-approved vaccine, has a negative test result (NAAT/RT-PCR test or a rapid antigen test), or has recovered from COVID-19. It is up to each Member State whether they accept citizens who have been vaccinated with vaccines that are not recognised by the EU, for the time being, such as the Russian (Spoetnik) and Chinese (Shinovax) vaccines. These are now used in Hungary, among other countries.If a Member State decides to continue requiring holders of a Digital Green Certificate to quarantine or undergo additional testing, the European Commission and all other Member States must be notified, and the Member State's decision must be justified.This certificate shall be valid in all European countries and open for Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland. It will be free of charge and it can be shown on mobile devices or on paper.The Commission emphasises that the “sensitive medical data” in the certificate will be assured of “a high level of data protection in accordance with European standards”. The certificate will include limited information such as the certificate holder’s name, date of birth, date of issuance, and information about the vaccine used, test, or recovery. When travelling to another EU country, the receiving authority can only verify the validity and authenticity of the passport. All health information remains with the Member State that issued the certificate in the first place.  
The next step will require a swift adoption by the European Parliament and the Member States. It will then be up to the Member States to implement the proposal and roll out the certificate issuance and verification. According to Ms. von der Leyen, current President of the European Commission, the Commission aims to have a digital infrastructure in place to allow certificate authentication by the summer of this year, giving Member States enough time to adjust/add the necessary improvements to their national health records systems. Last week, the European Parliament gave the go-ahead for an urgent procedure to meet that timetable.

Positions Belgium and the Netherlands

Both the Netherlands and Belgium remain hesitant about EU’s proposed Digital Green Certificate, in stark contrast with southern European countries that have prioritized such a certificate. Furthermore, they made it clear that such a certificate must not lead to a de facto obligation to vaccinate.The NetherlandsAccording to Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the exact technicalities of the implementation for the roll-out of certificates would be difficult and would pose a significant challenge. In addition, he shares the concerns of France and Germany that it is still too early to open borders to vaccinated travellers because it remains to be seen how effective the vaccine is against the spread of the virus and its new variants.But at the same time, the Netherlands is well-known for its digital progress and has nearly government processes digitalized. In view of testing, the Netherlands has already developed an app called “CoronaCheck” that shows a negative test result and can be used for future events, the gastronomic sector, cultural events and sports. In the absence of symptoms, the app enables you to make an appointment to be tested in case you want to attend a soccer game or a festival, for example. A trial festival was held in mid-March with approximately 1500 attendants. The test will be free until May 1st, after which it will be partially paid for by the organizations themselves. The proposal has been sent to the Chamber within Parliament for review.Recently, the Dutch government and the Dutch Minister of Health, Mr. De Jonge announced that the cabinet is working on the introduction of a digital corona passport to give people more freedoms.BelgiumPrime Minister Alexander De Croo welcomes the European Commission's proposal for a “Digital Green Certificate”, which would allow safe travel within the EU during the COVID-19-pandemic. Rather than addressing the problem in disarray, he preferred a unified European approach. De Croo is pleased that discrimination between those who have already been vaccinated and those who have not yet been vaccinated has been eliminated, but he cautioned that the certificate will need to meet all concerns, including those relating to the respect for individual freedoms and the protection of privacy. Therefore, the proposal and its privacy aspect will be closely scrutinized.Meanwhile, Belgium continues preparation for the development of a certificate.A similar approach could be proposed in the future for travel to third countries outside the European Union.

Current travel restrictions in the Netherlands/exemptions for some travellers

The Netherlands has extended the general flight ban until April 1, 2021 for the following countries: South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chili, Columbia, Ecuador, French-Guyana, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. The flight ban for the UK is no longer applicable as of 9 March 2021. The Dutch Government provides an exhaustive list of essential reasons on their official website.Highly Skilled Migrants and their family members, business travellers and long-term partners fall under the exemptions. EU nationals and their respective family members as well.The Netherlands has been further limiting entry to its territory and requiring double-testing (PCR and rapid test) prior to entry into the Netherlands from all countries which are considered high-risk countries.Currently, the list of countries considered safe are only the following:Safe countries outside the EU/Schengen area
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Rwanda
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Thailand
  • China (mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau). Only if China lifts entry restrictions on European travellers. Travellers from China are not required to present a negative COVID-19 test declaration
Safe countries within the EU/Schengen area
  • Iceland
Safe countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • St Maarten
  • Saba
  • St Eustatius
Persons who are nationals of or have their main residence in one of the above listed countries, do not need to present a negative PCR test/rapid test nor to complete a negative test declaration form.

Current travel restrictions for Belgium/ exemptions for some travellers

In light of the present epidemiological situation, the Belgian authorities decided to place a temporary ban on non-essential travel to Belgium until April 18, 2021. After the Easter holidays, travel within Europe will be allowed from Belgium again, although it remains strongly discouraged. All non-essential travel to Belgium remains prohibited for third-country nationals (non-EU and non-EEA nationals) when travelling from outside the Schengen zone unless they fall under essential reasons of travel. The Belgian Government provides an exhaustive list of essential reasons on their official website.Furthermore, Belgium continues to require administrative things to be done before travelling to Belgium.
  • Persons who are nationals of or have their main residence in an EU or Schengen zone country, as well as to persons who have their main residence in a third country on a list (Australia, New-Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand), need to present a negative PCR test and to complete a declaration of honour.
  • If the person does not live in an EU or Schengen zone country or in a country listed above, then a negative PCR test is required as well as a visa or an essential travel document that you can obtain from the embassy.
  • The Passenger Location Form will need to be filled before arrival in Belgium when staying abroad for longer than 48 hours.
  • Individuals travelling from the United Kingdom, South Africa or South America are required to quarantine in addition to being tested.

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