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EU Parliament pushes for free PCR tests before launch of green pass

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A person is tested inside a mobile coronavirus testing facility, in Ishoej, Denmark.
A person is tested inside a mobile coronavirus testing facility, in Ishoej, Denmark.   -   Copyright  Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix
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The European Parliament wants EU countries to ensure universal, accessible and free coronavirus testing ahead of the launch of the EU-wide green certificate this summer.

The certificate, designed to facilitate free movement for work and tourism, will include information about vaccination, COVID-19 recovery and negative PCR tests. EU citizens will be able to obtain the pass if they have, at least, one of the three elements. One vaccine dose will be enough to apply.

The European Commission presented its travel pass proposal in mid-March. Negotiations around the text are being fast-tracked by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, who act as co-legislators in the EU decision-making cycle. The three institutions agree that the instrument should be deployed before the start of the summer season.

On Thursday, the hemicycle adopted its official position and passed the amended text with 540 votes in favour, 119 votes against and 31 abstentions.

Among the new demands, MEPs want EU countries to "ensure universal, accessible, timely and free of charge testing" in order to avoid discrimination against those who are not vaccinated (or don't want to be vaccinated) and those who can't afford testing.

Prices for PCR test vary widely across the bloc and depend on several conditions. For example, in Belgium, PCR tests are free of charge for those who show COVID-19 symptoms, have had a high-risk contact or have returned from a country designated as red zone. However, those who wish to take a trip abroad must pay €46.81 upfront. In other member states, the cost can go up to €100.

"There are those of us, that do not have yet access to vaccines, not because we wanted or not, but because they are not sufficiently widely available for all of us. Therefore the element of testing, which is also possible to be used in the certificate needs to accessible, easily accessible and affordable to all of our citizens," said Dragos Tudorache, a Romanian MEP with the liberal group Renew Europe.

"Otherwise the introduction of the certificate may create an element of discrimination."

Testing prices were not included in the Commission's draft legislation. The executive simply indicated that NAAT/RT-PCR and rapid antigen tests will be the two types recognised to get the pass.

On Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson from the Commission said member states should establish measures to make the certificate available and affordable, but added the question of prices and reimbursement is up to national authorities. It's still unclear if countries will agree to abolish all the fees.

No extra travel restrictions

The European Parliament also demands that those who have obtained the green certificate "should not be subject to additional travel restrictions, such as quarantine, self-isolation or testing" when they arrive in the country of destination.

Spain has already announced it will not impose neither quarantine nor testing for the EU pass-holders. The Commission is urging countries to be coherent and consistent with restrictions and exemptions.

An attempt to introduce automatic recognition of vaccines not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), such as China's Sinopharm and Russia's Sputnik V, failed to pass.

MEPs ended up endorsing the Commission's original approach: only EMA-approved vaccines will be valid to apply for the certificate. As of today, the jabs approved by EMA are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), all of which are being currently used.

"It will be up to the member states to decide whether they also accept vaccination certificates issued in other member states for vaccines listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for emergency use," lawmakers said in a press release.

Additionally, legislators said the travel pass should be in place only for 12 months and underlined the instrument will not equate a travel document (that is, it should not become an actual passport) and will not be a "precondition to exercise the right to free movement", an opinion echoed by the Commission.

"People need to protect themselves. I do the same. Keep the distance, wear the mask, I think this is a case of the peoples right to self determination, and they know what is this about so they are able to protect themselves," said Helmut Geuking, German MEP from the European People's Party (EPP).

"That's why we don't need some kind of vaccination passports for travelling or for work. But we need clear and reasonable rules that are proportionate, and most of all, we need rules that do not infringe upon and limit civil liberties."

The European Parliament stressed that the EU-wide certificate should work alongside any other similar initiatives that member states might develop and deploy on their own. Lawmakers also voted in favour of a parallel proposal to extend the scheme to nationals from non-EU countries legally staying or residing inside the bloc.

Now that the hemicycle has adopted its negotiating mandate, attention turns to the Council of the European Union, where national ministers will have to decide if they agree with the Parliament's demands or continue debating the text until the both find a compromise.

The Council adopted its official position on April 14, but did not touch upon testing prices. The Council argues that imposing or waving travel restrictions must remain a national competence, which contradicts the Parliament's position of a blank exemption for pass-holders.

Another potential point of contention could be personal data: member states would like to use personal data collected during the certificate's roll-out for other purposes, as long as national law provides the legal basis to do so.