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Why did some Irish MEPs vote against an 'urgency' proposal for the EU's Digital Green Certificates?

Some MEPs voted against skipping the committee stage, where legislation underpinning the Certificates would be scrutinised.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

LAST THURSDAY, THE European Parliament voted to fasttrack legislation for the EU’s Digital Green Certificates, which raised some controversy about how MEPs voted.

The proposal would allow EU citizens to travel around the EU using a digital pass – if they are fully vaccinated, have a negative Covid-19 test, or have recovered from the disease. The Certificates would be free, and issued to citizens by their national government. 

They could also be used by non-EU nationals in countries from where travel to the bloc is allowed.

It has been described as less of a ‘vaccine passport’, and more of a ‘Covid passport’.

If it does come into force, Ireland and other EU member states will need to ensure testing facilities are widely and easily available for travellers.

Southern European states like Spain and Greece have pushed for the measure to be introduced as their economies are heavily reliant on the summer holiday season. 

But several EU members, such as France, have expressed concern it could discriminate against the majority of people who have not been offered a vaccine.

On Thursday 25 March, 68% of the European Parliament voted to fasttrack the legislation as an “urgency procedure” – this means it skips the committee stage scrutiny and goes straight to a vote by all MEPs in a plenary on 28 April.

There was some criticism of those who voted against the proposal – some of this criticism may be down to confusion over whether MEPs were taking a stance against the Digital Green Certificates themselves or the skipping of scrutiny of the legislation that underpins it.

“This is a very important matter that needs full scrutiny, including examination and debate around potential consequences,” Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan told The Journal.

MEPs can still propose changes to the legislation until 21 April. The European Parliament will vote on whether to accept or reject these changes on 28 April, with the aim of introducing the EU’s ‘Covid passports’ for the summer.

How Ireland voted

Of the 13 Irish MEPs, seven voted for the proposal: all Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil MEPs.

Green MEPs Ciarán Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan, Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus, Independents4Change’s Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, and Luke Ming Flanagan voted against the “urgency” proposal. 

Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews said that he received over 5,000 emails in the 48 hours after the vote about the proposal in the European Parliament to fasttrack the certificate.

He said that although many of the emails raised “valid and genuine concerns” about the proposed Digital Green Certificate, he added that “many also appear to have been part of a coordinated disinformation campaign”.

Without highlighting the exact disinformation raised, Andrews – who is a member of the EP Special Committee on Foreign Interference in European Democracies – said: “I believe that we are seeing a new front develop in this infodemic, and it is incumbent on us to strongly refute the allegations being made.”

He said that the purpose of the Digital Green Certificate is “to facilitate the exercise of free movement, not to curtail it”.

He also clarified that those who are not vaccinated for medical reasons; because they are not part of the target group for which the vaccine is currently recommended; or because they have not yet had the opportunity or do not wish to be vaccinated will still be allowed to exercise their EU right to freedom of movement through availing of mandatory testing, or quarantining/self-isolation.

“It is envisaged that this measure will cease once we are confident that we will not overwhelmed by another surge in cases. International travel is a vector for the spread of variants,” he added.

I voted in favour of using urgent procedure on this matter, given the importance of adopting this Digital Green Certificate as quickly as possible.

“Any unnecessary delays at committee level would hurt our hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors, who have already suffered enormously over the last year.”

Concerns about the urgency procedure

Among MEPs that support the idea of Digital Green Certificates, there are concerns at skipping the committee stage of the process to introduce legislation. 

Grace O’Sullivan, a Green Party MEP, said that she and her colleagues in the EU’s Green party are not against the proposal for vaccine passports – just against fasttracking it.

“I am only against the fast-tracking of the procedure to introduce a Digital Green Certificate,” she told The Journal.

“Legislative proposals from the Commission would usually be examined, debated, amended and voted on in the appropriate committee before the final vote by all MEPs in plenary. That normal procedure should only be circumvented if absolutely necessary.

The Greens/EFA group was in favour of an accelerated committee procedure, which would allow for faster than usual committee scrutiny due to the time sensitive nature of the proposal, without diluting the effectiveness of the process to the degree of the current approach, with just informal pre-plenary preparation happening at the committee level.

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O’Sullivan acknowledged that the Digital Green Certificates could be a potentially useful tool, but said that it is essential decisions are grounded “firmly in science”.

“It’s also a must for me that there are watertight guarantees in terms of data protection.

The issuing of Green Digital Certificates must not lead to discrimination or create a two-tier society that pits vaccinated and unvaccinated people against each other.

She also outlined more detailed areas of concern around whether the different vaccines being used offer so-called “sterile immunity” (that means the person vaccinated is not contagious); and how long immunity from vaccines will last.

“Both of these questions are important for the efficacy and success of a Digital Green Certificate at allowing societies to open up again without compromising people’s health.”

Concern about the Digital Green Certificates

Independents4Change MEP Mick Wallace is both against the fasttracking of the proposal, and against the proposal itself.

“The Digital Green Certificate is currently based on two really problematic and unproven assumptions,” he told The Journal, hinting at a concern also raised by O’Sullivan.

First, that the vaccination will be sufficiently effective in reducing transmission, and second, that the risk of transmission from those who have already recovered from Covid-19 is sufficiently low.

Wallace cites a WHO Interim Position Paper published in February, in which it highlighted that the extent and duration of antibody immunity to protect against Covid-19 reinfection have not been scientifically established.

“We also don’t know enough about the resistance of certain Covid-19 variants to the different vaccines,” Wallace says.

The Commission is proposing a measure that will inevitably interfere with people’s fundamental rights. Drastic measures such as this should be based on evidence that they are effective and necessary, and in this instance the vaccine certificates certainly fail the test of efficacy, but also I think necessity.

He also said that vaccine certificates, or this expanded version of them, would discriminate against those who are affected by the slow rollout of vaccination in the EU, as well as those in poorer countries who are being “deprived” of Covid-19 vaccines.

Although acknowledging that the Commission’s proposal limits the basis for how the Certificates can be used, Wallace says that governments could change this at national level.

“The Commission’s proposal relates only to travel and it clarifies that the regulation does not constitute a basis for allowing other uses of the certificate, or of the data collected, on an EU level.

“However, this leaves the door and the possibility open to Member States to legislate under national law to allow for further uses of the certificate and the data and that is very worrying,” Wallace concluded.

In the UK, a similar debate is being held around whether there should be ‘vaccine passports’ to allow people to go to pubs again without having to socially distance.

In an example of how complicated the issue is, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference last month that documents providing proof that someone has received a jab “raise all sorts of issues”, but he added that certificates enabling international travel “will be a feature of our life in the future”.

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