Has vaccine ‘jingoism’ poisoned the EU’s reputation?
Bloc threatens to ban export of Covid jabs to the UK
Tensions over Covid vaccine supplies have escalated into a battle of words between Brussels and London after Ursula von der Leyen threatened to use emergency powers to ban exports of the jabs to the UK.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused the European Commission president of “brinkmanship” and suggested that the EU is acting more like a dictatorship than a democratic body in trying to hold on to doses earmarked for Britain in order to meet the bloc’s shortfall.
EU demands ‘fair share’
In what Politico Europe describes as a “thinly veiled shot at the UK”, Von der Leyen yesterday warned that exports of vaccines made in the EU such as the BioNTech/Pfizer version may be cut off to countries that refuse to share their own jabs.
“We want to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports, and we are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that,” von der Leyen told a press conference, adding: “This is about making sure that Europe gets its fair share.”
The EU Commissioner said she was ready to trigger an emergency clause - Article 122 - that according to The Times would allow to bloc to “confiscate production plants and tear up patent controls”.
“It is hard to exaggerate how unimpressed the UK side is with the actions of von der Leyen and other European leaders,” says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.
A furious Raab told Reuters that the EU leader’s threat “cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the Commission” and requires “some explaining, because the world’s watching”.
“It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship,” he added.
An unnamed cabinet minister also “vented their fury” to London Playbook. Accusing the EU of “naked jingoism” against Britain, the government insider said: “They hate Brexit, they hate that our vaccine rollout has gone so well, and it’s obvious to everyone that they’re trying to intimidate us like a mob boss due to their desperation over their own abject failure.”
This morning’s leader article in The Times takes a similarly severe tone, arguing that “to punish a neighbour for one’s own failures is an act of weakness that serves only to highlight how gravely European leaders have failed in their most basic duty to their citizens”.
The threatened export ban could be a major blow to the UK, which is already facing the “first big setback” to the campaign to vaccinate the population against Covid, the paper continues. NHS bosses warned yesterday of a significant reduction in the number of vaccines arriving in the UK next month, as a result of supply problems from India.
Meanwhile, while the Commission is going “nuclear” over London’s alleged unwilling to hand over the EU’s “fair share” of UK-made AstraZeneca vaccines, 17 European countries "are keeping the ones they currently have in fridges over blood clot fears", says Playbook’s Wickham.
In a pointed jibe at a Downing Street press conference last night, England’s Deputy Chief Medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said: “Vaccines don’t save lives if they’re in fridges, they only save lives if they’re in arms.”
Pandemic ‘inflaming’ Brexit ‘teething pains’
“Is it health and safety - or grubby EU vs. Brexit politics?” So asks The Spectator USA of the EU’s decision to halt the use of AstraZeneca vaccines over fears that the jab may cause blood clots - a claim dismissed by the drug company, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Wall Street Journal says that vaccine exports row is “highlighting fast-deteriorating relations that have already been set back by disputes over the agreement that cemented the UK’s divorce from the bloc”.
“The pandemic has inflamed the teething pains that were expected in this new relationship,” adds the paper.
All the same, the EU’s decision to block a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses bound for Australia earlier this month “shows it is prepared to take unorthodox action” that affects other countries as well in order to protect the bloc’s stockpiles, says The Sydney Morning Herald.
EU ‘requires reciprocity’
Von der Leyen’s hard-line stance is being applauded by European leaders including Emmanuel Macron, who said yesterday that he backed her demands, “in particular to require reciprocity”.
And European Council President Charles Michel has urged other EU leaders to support the use of emergency powers to ban exports.
In a letter to the Austrian chancellor and the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Greece, Michel wrote that while he welcomed efforts to resolve the vaccines supply problem through “dialogue and negotiation”, the EU should “explore all options and make use of all legal means and enforcement measures at our disposal” if no solution were found.
Von der Leyen’s approach has also triggered criticism from within the EU, however. The head of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, Bernd Lange, has urged the Commissioner to work on a “political level” with the UK.
“Threat of export bans on Covid-19 vaccine by the European Commission is sign of helplessness rather than strength,” Lange tweeted.