“We didn’t shoot for the stars” claimed French President Emmanuel Macron on Greek television channel ERT amidst the current EU vaccine debacle. As countries like the UK and the US are well under way in their inoculation programmes, the EU is lagging behind. The consequences on global health are supplemented by diplomatic tensions between the EU and the UK but most alarmingly within the bloc itself.
The European Union decided to tackle the upcoming vaccination campaign with a seemingly united front. In perfect coherence with its motto “United in Diversity”, Brussels elaborated a scheme in June 2020 which allowed the EU to negotiate vaccine purchases on behalf of all 27 member states. This strategy aimed to prevent any competition in acquiring the vaccine between the member states which would consequently lessen costs.
However, while this may have been a commendable approach, the EU encountered substantial supply issues.
In December 2020, the EU closed a deal for 300 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses but a series of unforeseen complications delayed production. A first reduction of deliveries occurred due to projects to increase the production capacity of a Pfizer plant. Delays in the deliveries of Moderna doses were also signaled by multiple EU members. As for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, underproduction at plants located in Belgium and the Netherlands further exacerbated the shortfall.
Fears emerged that companies may be exporting vaccines abroad whilst failing to provide the doses ordered by the EU and stockpiling. These worries were further given grounds when a raid of a production plant at Anagni in Italy uncovered 29 million AstraZeneca doses, while the company was defecting on EU deliveries. Although AstraZeneca assured the doses were meant to be delivered to EU member states and poorer countries as part of the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative, EU sources contend that they were instead to be shipped to the UK. This incident only heightened the growing turmoil surrounding vaccine supply and pressure on the EU to accelerate its vaccine rollout.
Amidst the chaos, the European Union welcomed President Biden to their monthly summit on 25 March. Discussions revolved around boosting vaccine supplies and tackling new waves of contaminations in multiple member states. While President Biden’s presence at the summit paved the way for renewed transatlantic relations, the U.S.’ stance on exporting vaccines to the EU seems to remain unchanged.
“We’re going to start off and ensure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try to help the rest of the world,” assured President Biden earlier this month. A couple of days before the summit, President Biden then confirmed plans to deliver close to 4 million AstraZeneca doses to neighbouring Canada and Mexico. These vaccines were part of a 7 million stockpile which the EU hoped to gain access to, in vain. “As President Biden has said, the United States will work closely with our allies and our European Union partners across the continent to address our shared challenges and to meet our shared goal of a Europe whole, free and in peace,” explained U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. However, the EU is yet to receive any doses from its overseas ally who does not appear keen on playing the role of Deus ex Machina.
Closer to home, the EU is encountering difficulties in its relations with its former member.
It appears that tensions are indeed developing between the bloc and the UK as the two sides sustain diverging narratives. On one hand, the EU is increasingly critical of the UK’s lack of exports to other nations. According to EU Commission statistics, Brussels has exported at least 77 million doses across 33 countries, and of these, 21 million were shipped to the UK alone. EU leaders are urging the UK to reciprocate. On the other hand, the former EU member refuses to take any blame for the EU’s slow vaccine rollout and defends its right to negotiate contracts which give it priority over other nations. UK sources assured that vaccine components were shipped to other nations.
Tensions further escalated when it was announced that EU officials are discussing an export authorisation scheme which would apply to shipments towards nations that do not reciprocate the EU’s exports of doses abroad.
Yet, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton assured the EU’s complaints are directed towards AstraZeneca rather than the UK. “We have been heavily penalised and we just want to understand why” he explained, while the company firmly denies these accusations. Until now, AstraZeneca has supplied 19 million out of the contractual 120 million doses ordered by the EU. European officials explain that the export authorisation measure would be intended to pressure the company. In practice, while the EU can block exportation, it is unable to redistribute the vaccines among EU nations: the doses remain the property of the company.
In an effort to calm relations, discussions between the two parties were held. Both pledge “to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens”, but the situation is far from resolved. EU officials believe the UK should share the consequences of AstraZeneca’s underperformance in deliveries equally with the EU, but reaching consensus will be difficult.
Not only is the vaccine conflict exerting pressure on EU-UK relations, it is also reviving tensions among the 27 member states themselves. The global pandemic has already proven to be a test for intra-EU relationships, but the current fight for vaccines threatens to further fragilise the bloc.
By accepting the EU’s scheme for a centralised negotiation of vaccine purchases, individual member states renounced their ability to hold their own discussions with the same manufacturers chosen by the EU. However, in September 2020, Germany negotiated on its own 30 million doses provided by Pfizer, thus breaching the EU’s joint program. The European Commission abstained from any acknowledgement of Germany’s actions even after confirming that the scheme was “legally binding” according to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Germany’s violation of the agreement is further surprising considering it contradicts Chancellor Merkel’s active defense of the joint scheme at the time of discussions.
Divisions also emerged following Russia’s deployment of its own vaccine Sputnik V. While nations such as Germany and Hungary are pushing for the Commission to negotiate the purchase of Sputnik V doses, prominent EU officials are skeptical. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton claimed that the EU has “absolutely no need of Sputnik V,” while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen questioned Russia’s intentions behind exporting large quantities of its vaccine when its own citizens are not inoculated.
EU leaders are under increasing domestic and international pressure to address the current crisis. The question is now whether the EU can make a successful recovery after its disappointing start while playing a pivotal role in the worldwide distribution of vaccines and securing stable relationships between its member states. The stakes are high as the path to a post-Covid world will be in great part determined by the bloc’s performance in these critical times.
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