Blog post

What do vaccination passports mean for Europe?

To the extent that vaccination against COVID-19 stops individuals infecting others, restrictions on vaccinated individuals’ rights should be lifted: f

Publishing date
20 January 2021

The sudden reappearance of national borders within the European Union because of travel restrictions,  self-quarantine and test requirements – all differing depending on the country – has underlined the importance of a right that Europeans sometimes take for granted: the free movement of people. Both the EU Treaty and the Schengen agreement, which define and guarantee this basic principle of EU citizenship, allow border checks to be re-established for health reasons. Restrictions of movement rights as well as severe domestic restrictions on fundamental rights have of course been tools to limit the spread of COVID-19. These policies are justified because every individual could impose possibly major costs on others (negative externalities, in economists’ jargon) by spreading the virus.

The availability of vaccines and the logistics of organising mass vaccination will be key determinants of the post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and also the ability to increase mobility and reduce restrictions within and between countries. So far, the vaccine rollout in the EU has been slow, and vaccines may only become widely available in Europe after mid-2021. Here, we explore to what extent vaccination should allow restrictions on the individual to be lifted in the interim.

The first question is whether a vaccinated person can still be infectious. Even if research on this is not yet conclusive, it may be reasonable to assume that vaccination can reduce the externality: vaccinated individuals will be less likely to spread the virus. If so, there seems to be no reason to continue to deprive those individuals of their fundamental rights. Worse, doing so would be akin to what occurs in freedom-denying authoritarian states. How can one force an individual into quarantine after foreign travel if he or she is not infectious?

As a result, a growing number of countries, including in the EU, have been considering the introduction of so-called ‘vaccination passports’ which should provide their holders with easier access to certain services including travel. In the EU, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been the most vocal proponent of such a solution, calling for the adoption of common EU standards to ease travel. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has stated that she is in favour of vaccination certificates, while leaving open the question of whether this certificate alone should enable unhindered travel. EU heads of government will discuss the issue on Thursday (21 January) but many have already come out in favour (Denmark, Cyprus, Poland, Belgium, Estonia, Spain).

But there has also been resistance. In France, the idea was quickly ruled out, challenged both by popular opposition and legal hurdles. Some legal experts have argued that, as long as the vaccine is not truly accessible to all, conditioning access to certain services would be discriminatory. And doing so would require clearly laying out exemptions for individuals who cannot be vaccinated (such as pregnant women or individuals with potentially severe allergic reactions).

These legal hurdles are by no means insurmountable. For a variety of diseases, many European countries already enforce some form of mandatory vaccination rule, meaning that access to certain services (most frequently, schools) is conditional on inoculation against listed diseases. Figure 1 summarises these vaccination requirements. In 2020, Germany joined the ranks of countries with mandatory vaccination rules in an effort to contain a new measles outbreak. Italy and France have both increased the number of mandatory vaccines in recent years.

The most compelling objection to an immunity passport might be the possible loss of social cohesion. A vaccination passport could be perceived as unfair as long as vaccines have not become available to everyone. Countries are able to restrict access to school for children who are not vaccinated against measles because the measles vaccine is widely available. Thus, acceptance of the idea that those who are vaccinated first should immediately recover their fundamental rights depends on whether the vaccination allocation timeline is perceived as fair. The Indonesian vaccination strategy for instance, prioritising the younger, working-age population (supposedly because the vaccine has not been tested in Indonesia on the elderly), has attracted much criticism, bringing into question tolerance for the fragmentary recovery of fundamental freedoms. That may seem extreme by European standards. And yet, local administrators have reportedly suggested that richer regions should get larger shares of vaccines to prompt economic recovery. Empirical models may indicate that super-spreaders should be vaccinated first, rather than the vulnerable.

In the EU, national authorities are in charge of developing vaccination priorities. While these have not always been vetted by national parliaments, they have been decided by elected officials and presumably are democratically and politically accepted. If the public perceives these priorities as fair, it could open up the possibility of reducing restrictions for those who have already been vaccinated, while maintaining them temporarily for the rest of the population.

One possible counterargument is that in EU countries, vulnerable individuals are unfortunately not treated in the same way. While the European Commission has led EU efforts to procure vaccines through a centralised scheme, the distribution of vaccines to EU countries is being done on a per-capita basis, ignoring the different age structures, in other words the main drivers of vulnerability, of each country. Table 1 summarises, for selected European countries, the share of total EU population and the share of total EU population above 65. Based on its total population, Italy is receiving 13.51% of the vaccines procured by the European Commission. But if distribution was done on the basis of the share of the EU population aged over 65 (a major risk factor with COVID-19), Italy would receive 15.2% of vaccines. Meanwhile, with its younger population, Poland is significantly better off with the current distribution scheme. Assuming similar vaccination rates and within an immunity passport framework, this suggests that young Polish citizens will be free to travel before young Italian citizens, simply because of their country’s population age structure.

This issue is even more striking on a global level. Rich countries have been able to begin their vaccination campaigns much sooner than poor countries and everything indicates that the correlation between higher GDPs per capita and higher shares of vaccinated individuals will only strengthen in the months to come. Will rich countries only allow travellers to enter if vaccinated, essentially excluding individuals from poor countries? Will global air travel depend on vaccination certificates?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and policymakers will likely struggle to strike the right balance. To the extent that vaccination prevents individuals from being infectious, restrictions on rights could be lifted. To ensure social acceptability, the distribution of vaccines should be based on democratic support. Decisions on distribution are fundamentally important, affecting life and death and social acceptability. Continuing to restrict the freedoms of non-infectious individuals seems unacceptable. It is not a question of privileges but rather of fundamental rights, the removal of which only grave externalities can justify.

Recommended citation:

Jeanrenaud, L., M. Mariniello and G. Wolff (2021) ‘What do vaccination passports mean for Europe?’ Bruegel Blog, 20 January

About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. From 2022-2024, he was the Director and CEO of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and from 2013-22 the director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy, climate policy, geoeconomics, macroeconomics and foreign affairs. His work was published in academic journals such as Nature, Science, Research Policy, Energy Policy, Climate Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Banking and Finance. His co-authored book “The macroeconomics of decarbonization” is published in Cambridge University Press.

    An experienced public adviser, he has been testifying twice a year since 2013 to the informal European finance ministers’ and central bank governors’ ECOFIN Council meeting on a large variety of topics. He also regularly testifies to the European Parliament, the Bundestag and speaks to corporate boards. In 2020, Business Insider ranked him one of the 28 most influential “power players” in Europe. From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister’s Conseil d’Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed member and co-director to the G20 High level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the co-chairs Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Lawrence H. Summers and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. From 2013-22, he was an advisor to the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. He is a member of the Bulgarian Council of Economic Analysis, the European Council on Foreign Affairs and  advisory board of Elcano.

    Guntram joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he worked in the research department at the Bundesbank, which he joined after completing his PhD in economics at the University of Bonn. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund. He is fluent in German, English, and French. His work is regularly published and cited in leading media. 

  • Mario Mariniello


    Mario Mariniello was Senior Fellow at Bruegel. He led Bruegel’s Future of Work and Inclusive Growth project, which closely analyses the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the nature, quantity and quality of work, welfare systems and inclusive growth at large. In particular, the role of technology in reshaping society when subject to extreme stress (i.e. during a pandemic).

    Before joining Bruegel, Mario was Digital Adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), a European Commission in-house think-tank that operated under the authority of President Jean-Claude Juncker. The EPSC provided the President and the College of Commissioners with strategic, evidence-based analysis and forward-looking policy advice. In his capacity of Digital Adviser, Mario led the EPSC’s work on Digital Single Market issues.

    Mario has also previously been a Bruegel Fellow focusing on “Competition Policy and Regulation”. From 2007 to 2012, Mario was a member of the Chief Economist Team at DG-Competition, European Commission. During that time, he developed the economic analysis of a number of topical antitrust and merger cases in the technological and transport sectors.

    Mario holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Organization from the European University Institute of Fiesole (Florence) and a M.Sc. in Economics from CORIPE (Turin). He currently teaches a course in Digital Economy at the College of Europe and has previously taught a course in European Economic Integration for Master students at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

    Declaration of interests 2021

    Declaration of interest 2020

    Declaration of interest 2015

  • Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud

    Lionel worked at Bruegel as a Research Assistant until August 2022. He studied economics at the Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon, in France. Before joining Bruegel, Lionel worked as a research assistant at the Department of Economics of Harvard University.

    His Master’s thesis investigated the impact of newspaper closures on anti-government sentiment in the United States. In addition to media economics and political economy, his research interests include fiscal policy and the digital economy.

    Lionel is a dual French and American citizen.

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