Tuesday

5th Mar 2024

Opinion

'Covid passports' for Eastern Partnership neighbours?

  • The current perspective for eastern Europeans to enter the EU lacks both a time frame and epidemiological rules (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

After more than three months of pandemic, the EU's internal borders are gradually re-opening for the movement of people.

Restrictions for travelling are being lifted at different speeds, but nevertheless the situation does seem bright for European citizens with the freedom to travel across 26 Schengen states and overall in the EU.

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Less fortunate are the potential visitors from third countries. Entry to the EU is restricted for them until at least mid-June or, even later.

Further restrictions on travelling to and within the EU will impact upon the EU's eastern neighbours, including the visa-free regime beneficiaries - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

While the reopening of the EU's inner borders looks somewhat messy and "de-Europeanised", the signals for the Eastern neighbours are even gloomier and confusing.

Therefore, a road map is urgently needed to cautiously, but also orderly, lift the restrictions at EU external borders for the Eastern partners.

To avoid the eastward import of virus, the epidemiological clearance remains a priority.

If that means introducing "Covid-19 passports", then the conditions should be precise as to avoid discriminatory implications and setting back the broader progress of the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

The perspective for eastern Europeans to enter the EU lacks a timeframe and epidemiological rules.

Two significant circumstances complicate the outlining of a 'new normal' format for the freedom of movement within the EU, as well as for the travelling to Schengen area from the Eastern neighbourhood.

First, the Schengen area is fragmented and unable to reach binding unanimity.

The national governments do not coordinate their steps when they open the EU inner borders. The adopted measures do not follow a shared logic.

The ways of coping with the virus have contrasted from the very beginning and this slows down the possibility of uniform regeneration of the intra-EU freedom of movement.

Neither the timeframe nor the lists of the countries eligible to travel to Europe coincide, while neighbours are often seen with certain suspicion and through the epidemiological lenses.

Second, Eastern neighbours also vary as far as concerns their capacity to administer the health crisis adequately.

Out of six states of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine), Belarus, Armenia and Moldova account for the most significant number of contagions.

Infection in some of them has overcome the highly-affected regions in the EU.

Belarus higher than Italy

Belarus' incidence of the disease is currently higher than in Italy (486.4 cases, against 386.5 cases, per 100,000 people).

Ukraine and Azerbaijan have counts comparable to Poland and the Czech Republic, where the outbreak had an average intensity.

At the same time, some eastern states are positioned better than the 'best' anti-Covid-19 performers in the EU, such as Slovakia or Greece.

Georgia success

That is the case for Georgia, where the infection rate stabilised at 20.2 cases per 100,000 people, with 3.3 deaths per one million people.

Such epidemiological contrasts in the Eastern Partnership invite a differentiated approach, but in no case a discriminatory one, from the EU in the opening of the external borders to its neighbours.

If infections toll constitutes the criteria of reference, then the EU states have to abolish the restrictions for the Georgians.

That may allow piloting new "safeguard measures" of epidemiological nature together with Georgian authorities, later expanding to the rest of the EaP region.

The sixth Eastern Partnership Summit is scheduled for 18 June.

EU officials started the preparations and the resumption of traveling to Europe should be on the agenda.

The commitments undertaken by the Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in terms of readmission, border and migration management should continue to be rewarded with a functional visa-free regime.

Today, visa-liberalisation seems somewhat frozen and with ambiguous perspective during the times of pandemic.

More than three times the deadlines for the third-countries nationals' travels to the EU have been revised.

On 27 April, the tourism ministers of the EU states held a conversation about the eventual use of "certificate of security", also termed as "Covid-19 passports".

This tool would involve a negative Covid-19 test, social distancing rules and tracking applications, which all together would allow keeping an eye on those arriving from third countries.

Such an initiative has been not carved yet into any official proposal of the European institutions.

In the light of the upcoming summit, the EU can set the goal of making the visa-free regime practical again on clear terms, within a road map.

The domestic epidemiological conditions matter and the authorities of the Eastern Partnership need EU technical guidance and financial support to stop the outbreak.

Technical parameters for the "Covid-19 passports" should be well defined. Based on precise requirements, Eastern Partnership neighbours can arrange the infrastructure to ensure the authenticity of the negative Covid-19 tests presented at the entry in the EU.

Establishing the "new normal" for travel regime between the EU and the Eastern neighbours represents a way to mobilise both the authorities and citizens to uphold the epidemiological rules.

The eastern neighbours should start this discussion during the EaP summit and even to encourage the EU member states to develop the rules in a co-ownership.

Author bio

Denis Cenusa is a researcher at the Institut für Politikwissenschaft, Justus-Liebig-Universität (Giessen, Germany), where he is conducting his PhD research of the EU’s impact on “state resilience” in Eastern Europe, with a focus on Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

He co-edited with Michael Emerson the handbook: Deepening EU-Moldova relations: What, Why and How? (2016 and 2018 editions), and with Steven Blockmans The Struggle for Good Governance in Eastern Europe (2018). He authored various publications on visa liberalisation, oligarchy in Eastern Europe, Russia's leverage on energy security and democratic involvement in the Eastern Partnership.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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