Brussels, (20th March, 2021, 10:50 pm)(AFP/APP):EU capitals were divided Monday on how to handle a looming vaccine war with the UK, with France pushing for action and Ireland and the Netherlands arguing for dialogue.
The row is over the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, one of four approved in Europe, that was supposed to be the backbone of the EU’s effort to immunise the continent by September.
But Europe’s plan ran into trouble when the Anglo-Swedish company said it would fall well short of its contracted deliveries to Europe, while Britain seemed to roar ahead with its AstraZeneca-based vaccination campaign.
The European Commission, which handled orders for the EU’s 27 member states, was angered by the slowdown and has threatened to block exports of vaccines to the UK if it didn’t send vaccines back Europe’s way.
But the escalation has rattled nerves, with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin warning that a block on vaccines heading to Britain would be “a very retrograde step”.
“I’m very much against it,” he told Irish state broadcaster RTE. “It’s absolutely vital that we keep supply chains open.”
The furore is mostly focussed on a Netherlands factory that is still awaiting official EU approval, but which both sides claim as a future source of the AstraZeneca jab.
The question is whether the Netherlands will follow in the footsteps of Italy, which blocked the export of about 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia, using a new mechanism set up by the commission.
The EU Commission would have the power to override the Dutch government, but a ban imposed by Brussels would be unprecedented and highly controversial.
All eyes were on a video meeting of European leaders to be held later in the week to find consensus on the issue.
A Dutch government official urged a “compromise” between Britain, the EU commission and AstraZeneca and said that an export breakdown would be “a lose-lose scenario”.
But, while The Hague was “in principle” favourable in keeping supply chains intact, it would follow the commission in what it decided, he added.
France meanwhile took a much tougher line, and fully backed EU chief Ursula von der Leyen who on Saturday reiterated the export threat against the UK.
“This must be the strategy of a Europe that moves faster and defends its interests: produce more, enforce contracts, control exports,” French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said.
– ‘Find solutions’ –
A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Von der Leyen is also assumed to have the backing of Berlin, though an EU spokesman on Monday insisted that a dialogue with Britain was ongoing.
“As ever the European Commission is open and constructive in trying to find solutions,” Eric Mamer, Von der Leyen’s spokesman, told reporters.
British Prime minister Boris Johnson meanwhile also dialled down the acrimony saying he felt “reassured” that EU leaders were opposed to any blockade on vaccines.
“I’ve talked to our friends repeatedly. We’re all facing the same pandemic, we all have the same problems,” he added.
“Developing vaccines, rolling them out, these are international projects and they require international cooperation.”
This was a step back from Sunday when a UK minister warned that “the world is watching” and that the EU must think hard about how to address its vaccine shortfall.
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