European Union leaders struggle to grip coronavirus vaccine crisis

European Union leaders struggle to grip coronavirus vaccine
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Welcome to the latest phase of coronavirus in the EU: pandemic pandemonium. 

As EU heads of state and government prepared to convene for a virtual summit on Thursday, the European Commission rolled out plans for a draconian mechanism to curb vaccine exports. But officials quickly conceded that it would do almost nothing immediately, if ever, to solve the EU’s main problem: an acute shortage of doses to inoculate people. 

In a bid to dial down tensions between Brussels and London, the EU and U.K. issued a vague joint statement on Wednesday evening, proclaiming that they would work together to increase supplies of vaccines. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson was still threatening retaliation over any potential restrictions on exports, and EU officials were still seething over the fact that British vaccine producers are not shipping doses abroad. 

The lack of any specifics in the joint statement only underscored the absence of any good options for political leaders in a situation where the demand for vaccines currently far outstrips existing production capabilities.

“We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important,” the statement proclaimed. “We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on COVID-19. Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take — in the short-, medium – and long term — to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.”

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And just in case citizens were worried that communication channels were breaking down across the Channel, the statement concluded by saying: “We will continue our discussions.”

Chaos contagion

Meanwhile, EU countries were convulsed in various controversies over lockdown measures or vaccine supplies, and were left confronting the prospects of yet another holiday season — Easter, now — with broad swaths of the economy still shut down. 

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a stunning plea for forgiveness from citizens and abruptly backtracked on plans for a five-day lockdown over Easter that would have closed all stores from April 1 to April 5. “A mistake must be called just that,” Merkel said, accepting full responsibility. But at the same time, she reiterated that Germany was in the throes of a third wave of infections.

In Belgium, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced an “Easter pause” reimposing some tougher containment measures, including the shutting of schools and of businesses that provide close-contact services like hairdressers and nail salons.

And in Italy, the fallout continued over a weekend raid of a vaccine manufacturing plant by military police, who were apparently acting at the behest of the EU’s point-man on vaccine production, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. The plant is owned by Catalent, a subcontractor that provides fill-and-finish work for AstraZeneca, the vaccine-maker that has infuriated the Commission because of production shortfalls amounting to tens of millions of doses.

Breton apparently believed some of the factory’s production numbers did not add up. The police found 29 million doses that were awaiting shipment to Belgium. AstraZeneca issued a statement describing the situation as routine, but the large amount seemed to play into concerns raised by the EU in recent days that companies could be “stockpiling” doses.

The company denied accusations of stockpiling, saying that of the stash, 13 million doses were intended for the COVAX pool for developing countries and the rest were destined for Europe.

Overall the incident just added to the growing sense of chaos, and deepening crisis.

Politicians and public health officials had long warned that things would get worse this spring before they got better. But somehow leaders seemed to have ignored — or forgotten — their own guidance as they garbled their messages, fumbled policy decisions, and generally left citizens with a sense that things were starting to spin out of control.

In his summit invitation letter sent to heads of state and government on Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel stressed the centrality of the vaccine issue to the leaders’ meeting.

“On COVID, our top priority is to speed up vaccination campaigns across the EU,” he wrote. “To this end, the ongoing work to boost vaccine production, increase vaccine deliveries and ensure more transparency and predictability of supplies should be intensified.”

Export restrictions

Under massive pressure to deliver on those hopes, the Commission on Wednesday unveiled the pumped-up export control scheme that it said should help secure more vaccines. “While our Member States are facing the third wave of the pandemic and not every company is delivering on its contract,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement Wednesday. “We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens. Every day counts.”

But more dubious trade officials below her said that the mechanism would not allow the EU to requisition vaccines. Indeed, two officials said that it was a measure that the EU would rather not ever use.

On paper, the new measures would now allow the Commission to block exports of vaccines to countries with higher vaccination rates and that don’t reciprocate EU exports. “These are necessary to achieve our objective of ensuring timely access to COVID-19 vaccines for EU citizens,” said Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis.

But Dombrovskis admitted that the scheme could not force companies to give those blocked vaccines to EU countries. “It’s an export authorization system, it does not prescribe what companies should do with the doses concerned,” he said.

In a briefing for reporters, a senior EU official said: “We cannot seize, from neither the European nor the member state level, any of these doses which have been not granted for export … What has been [blocked] … of course remains in the property of the company and the company then has to see what to do with it.”

A trade diplomat said that meant a vaccine-maker could simply export those blocked doses to a different country that doesn’t meet the criteria for restrictions.

But another senior EU official said the Commission hoped that by threatening to block exports, it would nudge companies into front-loading vaccine shipments to EU countries and delaying some of their shipments to countries with higher vaccination rates.

As officials acknowledged they had few options, Germany urged the Commission to buy doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which is not yet approved for use in the EU. Some officials, including von der Leyen, had previously raised public doubts about the vaccine, questioning why Russia was looking to ship so much of it abroad, even as many of its citizens appeared not to be getting vaccinated.

Biden beams in

A third senior EU official said it would be difficult for heads of state and government to discuss the Commission’s proposal at Thursday’s summit given that it was unveiled just a day prior to the meeting. But it seemed impossible that the national leaders would not seize the chance to discuss any and all ways to alleviate the vaccine shortage.

Despite rising political pressure at home, leaders are divided over the proposed export restrictions. France, Germany and Italy appeared to be in strong support of at least threatening the tougher export measures. But Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and other countries were reluctant to get tougher, citing possible threats of retaliation and disruption of supply chains, diplomats said Wednesday.

Among EU diplomats on Wednesday, there was also some continuing discussion about invoking an emergency provision of the EU treaties, known as Article 122, that might allow the seizure of vaccine doses or other urgent measures. Such a move could have serious legal repercussions and diplomats said it was unclear if it was viable.

But given the public frustration, some leaders are clearly eager to be more proactive. In an op-ed published by POLITICO, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, for example, called for the EU to use every legal tool to increase production, including a mechanism of “compulsory licensing” that he said would allow the EU effectively to seize patent rights and enlist other manufacturers.

And EU countries have also been divided on another proposal — to create a digital vaccine certificate that would potentially help revive travel. The Commission has been pushing hard to develop the concept, and supporters of the idea have insisted that it has general support among capitals. But some countries are resistant because of concerns over data privacy, and the need to develop more reliable technology to serve as an interoperable platform.

Amid the angst about vaccine supplies, leaders will welcome a star guest. U.S. President Joe Biden will join the European Council videoconference at Michel’s invitation on Thursday evening, but it was unclear if Michel planned to directly plead with the American president to ease any obstacles to vaccine shipments from the U.S.

Biden will be a more welcome sight than his White House predecessor Donald Trump, but it seemed unlikely he would offer to get them out of their vaccine supply hole. This week it was Poland, rather than the U.S., that said it would supply vaccines for all employees at NATO headquarters.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de La Baume, Anna Isaac and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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