Vaccine passports: How the EU can win the next round of covid diplomacy

A new EUROVAX scheme should be at the heart of the EU’s new offer to help its neighbours tackle covid-19 in the years ahead

Image by Jernej Furman

How covid-19 harmed Europe’s image

In the early days of the pandemic, hard-hit European Union member states hoarded masks while China and Russia made big displays of generosity by sending planeloads of medical equipment to countries friendly to them, including some within the EU. In response, the EU tried to regain soft power by announcing €20 billion of economic aid through its TEAM Europe initiative. Though welcome and crucially important, these invisible bank transfers were much less photogenic than huge planes landing around the world. The EU provides support to many countries through the World Health Organization’s COVAX scheme – but few regard this as an EU effort.

After mask diplomacy came vaccine diplomacy. While the EU struggled to get its own vaccine efforts off the ground, Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Serbia overtook it in the race to vaccinate people. Russia and China prioritised sending their vaccines abroad. Initially much criticised for hoarding vaccines, last month the US announced plans to export 60 million vaccines to countries in need on top of its support for COVAX. Washington has also backed the removal of intellectual property on covid-19 vaccines, while EU leaders have resisted such intellectual property waivers. China has been selling and giving away its vaccines to many places, despite significant question marks over the vaccines’ effectiveness. And Russia has done much more to promote Sputnik internationally than to vaccinate its own population. It has vaccinated only 9 per cent of its people compared to the EU’s 28 per cent, yet Russia promotes itself internationally as a country that has managed covid-19 and vaccination better than others, partly because Sputnik is widely available domestically, and is readily sold and donated to other countries.   

Share of population in select countries vaccinated against covid-19

There are isolated examples of EU member states being visible in offering vaccines to non-EU countries. The EU recently delivered the first vaccines to all non-EU Western Balkan countries, as a supplement to the COVAX scheme, and Romania donated a substantial number of vaccines to its neighbour Moldova. However, the EU has generally been less present than other powers on the map of vaccine diplomacy. And this discrepancy could lead to tensions with the EU’s neighbours – especially now in light of recent EU plans to introduce vaccine ‘passports’.

Vaccine passports for whom?

In its efforts to restore freedom of movement and help the economy, the European Commission in March revealed its plan to introduce Digital Green Certificates. Anyone who has been vaccinated;  has a negative test result; or has recovered from covid-19 will be able to show their status using a smartphone app when travelling abroad or when going out for leisure purposes in their own country (if member states set rules on these activities). The plans will apply to EU citizens and foreign nationals residing in the EU. Importantly, the scheme only considers vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA): Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson.

A lively debate is taking place about the risks of these certificates for the privacy and equality of EU citizens. But much less understood is the impact that the Digital Green Certificate could have on the EU’s image around the world – especially in the EU’s own neighbourhood.

There are two risks here. Firstly, countries neighbouring the EU have already begun issuing their own vaccine certificates, but the question is whether the EU will accept them as a valid document allowing travel into the EU. If the answer is ‘No’, millions of people vaccinated in the Western Balkans, Russia, and the Eastern Partnership countries could face further restrictions on entry to the EU. It is also currently unclear how the EU and member states can guard against the use of forged certificates.

The second dilemma is what to do with those citizens of Albania, Serbia, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine who have been vaccinated with the Russian or Chinese vaccines. Faced with scarcity of Western vaccines, these countries have looked elsewhere out of necessity. The challenge could arise from divisions between countries and between citizens within countries, some of whom were given Western vaccines and some Chinese or Russian vaccines. In this context, for example, Digital Green Certificates that only recognise Western vaccines risk discriminating between, say, Sputnik-vaccinated Albanians and Pfizer-vaccinated Albanians. Such an outcome risks creating diplomatic imbroglios that are unlikely to improve the EU’s image in those countries.   

Investing in better covid foreign policy: EUROVAX and greater coordination

Covid-19 is already influencing narratives about the EU and other powers. In Serbia – where use is high of the Russian and Chinese vaccines – a new study reveals that pro-government media praise “love from China” while accusing the EU of abandoning Serbia during the crisis. So how can the EU do better in the inevitable next round of covid diplomacy?

Firstly, the EU should consider developing a longer-term policy for helping its neighbours, especially given that regular vaccinations for local populations may be needed for some years to come. This policy could be called EUROVAX and would involve making regular vaccine donations to neighbours, as well as providing technical assistance to help these countries roll out vaccination campaigns. COVAX is a global tool, and the right thing to pursue. But the EU should devise a special, well-communicated, and visible vaccine-sharing mechanism, designed for candidate countries and close partners to its east and south. The EU is already ordering vaccines for the coming years, so it should factor in now the need to buy vaccines that it could use for donations later.

Digital Green Certificates that only recognise Western vaccines risk discriminating between, say, Sputnik-vaccinated Albanians and Pfizer-vaccinated Albanians

Next, the EU needs to start talking to its neighbours about how to make vaccine certificates compatible. The EU needs to be able to obtain guarantees and be assured of protection mechanisms to ensure document validity. Equally, the EU should work on a parallel mechanism for alleviating travel restrictions for citizens from neighbouring countries who have received Chinese or Russian vaccines. With the involvement of the EMA, the EU could either accept travellers vaccinated with non-EMA-approved vaccines, or at least analyse which non-EMA-approved vaccines are good enough to allow non-EU citizens to travel to the EU for tourism or business. Ultimately, some vaccines are problematic because of their side-effects, not because they are ineffective against covid-19.

The pandemic is having a major impact on the image of countries large and small. China, Russia, the US and smaller players like Serbia, Romania, and Israel have found ways to boost their international standing either by supplying other countries, being seen to have done a good job domestically, or both. How the EU handles the rollout of its Digital Green Certificate, and how it prepares for the next bouts of vaccine diplomacy, will have a profound impact on the EU’s reputation in the years to come.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Wider Europe
Distinguished policy fellow

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