The bloc is split between member states like France and Germany, which are reluctant to start linking shots to travel rights, while another camp, led by tourism-minded Greece and Cyprus, is keen to move forward more quickly.
Nicosia has already signed a deal with Israel allowing citizens who’ve had the jab in for holidays from April 1.
“Vaccines will prove central to our long-term recovery, with no one left forgotten,” European Parliament President David Sassoli told leaders at the opening of the talks.
“We need to develop a pan-European response that brings tangible benefits to citizens in all member states,” the official transcript of his address read.
Ahead of the EU videoconference, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he backed making travel easier, among other benefits for the inoculated. The vaccination certificate should ideally be stored on the holder’s mobile phone, Kurz said on German newspaper Bild’s livestream, Bild Live.
Those who are immune after having recovered from COVID-19 could also regain “full freedom” as well as those with a negative test, the Austrian leader argued. In this way, freedom to travel in Europe could become possible again, he said.
However, the science on whether vaccinated people can still infect others is not yet decisive. Moreover, with shots in short supply, there are also concerns about fairness.
Just over 6 per cent of the EU population has had at least one dose so far, according to figures compiled the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.
“Vaccine passports” could also exclude those unwilling or unable to get a shot.
No decision is expected on Thursday.
At present, discussions are focussed on how to mutually recognize vaccination or testing certificates, according to EU and diplomatic sources. Many are keen to see a global framework in place, to ensure any EU certification scheme could also function elsewhere.
The 27 countries unanimously pledged to restrict non-essential travel within and into the bloc a few weeks ago. A draft joint statement seen by dpa ahead of Thursday’s videoconference shows they plan to stick to this position.
Another contentious issue is border closures.
The European Commission chided Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden and Finland earlier this week for sealing off frontiers to neighbours within the EU free movement area in a bid to curb the spread of new coronavirus variants.
The EU executive arm is pushing member states to stick to a framework for travel within the bloc agreed just a few weeks ago, based on shared risk assessments.
Finally, EU leaders are to discuss ways to step up their inoculation drives, with the 27 member countries lagging behind frontrunners like Israel and Britain in the race to vaccinate their populations.
“We need to urgently accelerate the authorisation, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination,” the heads of state and government are set to pledge, according to the draft statement.
The member states are also to throw their weight behind the European Commission’s recent efforts to work with industry and address bottlenecks, the draft shows, after weeks of tension with pharmaceutical firms over delivery days.