Covid-19 vaccine caught in the crossfire of EU, UK spat

Feb 8, 2021

Scientists and medical professionals are concerned that, in its attempts to justify the slow rollout of vaccines to the 448 million EU citizens, European Commission officials may have diminished faith in the efficacy of the vaccines globally.

Were it not so serious, there would be an element of farce about the EU-UK contretemps, which began before Christmas and is still running. Unsurprisingly, it developed in the dying embers of Britain’s four decades of EU membership and grew in complexity and bitterness in recent weeks.

Let’s consider the protagonists:

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK since July 2019 and a former journalist (editor of The Spectator and one-time Brussels correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph). He led the successful 2016 Leave campaign that ultimately took Britain out of the EU.

Ursula von der Leyen, now in her second year as president of the European Commission (the EU’s executive arm which is responsible for drawing up proposals to leaders and lawmakers, and implementing their decisions). A former German defence minister and medical doctor  she is also the mother of seven children.

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, will be seeking re-election next year; opinion polls show Nationalist Marine Le Pen closing the gap.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, who is serving out her final months as leader of Europe’s biggest economy.

Michel Barnier, former chief Brexit negotiator of the European Commission.

The dispute had its origins in the final months of the three-year negotiation between Britain and the EU to establish a free trade agreement. Negotiations broke down when Johnson put legislation to the Westminster Parliament to give Britain the right to overturn clauses that he had signed off a year earlier in the Withdrawal Agreement. EU leaders complained that Britain had broken a treaty, and accused Johnson of being untrustworthy. Yet the EU needed a deal as much as Britain, and here is why.

The EU had a $A61.2 billion trade surplus with the UK (particularly in goods such as autos and manufactured products), but a huge $A150 billion deficit in services, much of it financial services generated from London’s financial centre.

Von der Leyen shrewdly eyed the possibility of redressing this balance. The aim was to cut a deal that would allow the European auto manufacturers to continue their dominance of the British market while achieving German, French and Dutch ambitions to shrink London’s preeminence as a financial centre. The Commission president invited Johnson to a dinner at her Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels, which took place on 8 December.

With lockdown restrictions and social distancing in place in both Belgium and Britain, von der Leyen waited in the hall of the building to greet the UK prime minister. Johnson bounded in from his car, arms outstretched, as if about to deliver a bear hug. “Step back,” she barked, a command that appeared to set the tone for the dinner conversation, which was described as ‘lively’ and ‘refreshingly candid’.

Nevertheless, the result was a resumption of negotiations and a trade deal announced on Christmas Eve. There would be no tariffs or quotas on traded goods, but the key issue of equivalence for financial services was ‘kicked down the road’ for later deliberation. In other words, ‘game set and match’ to von der Leyen.

From January 1 trades in the stocks and bonds of EU-based companies had to be made on European bourses and not London. Transactions worth A$7.2 billion a day moved to Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam and Dublin, along with many jobs.

If Johnson was worried, he did not show it. He and his ministers sought to outwit their European rivals on another issue that was of much greater concern to the public – the fight to stifle the spread of the coronavirus. The Johnson government, which had boasted about its ‘world-class’ test and trace system (a dismal failure), decided the only solution was to vaccinate the nation. It set about securing as many vaccines as possible.

Early in 2021, as well as hospitals, surgeries and pharmacies, football grounds, cinemas, churches, mosques and public car parks were converted to vaccination centres. The army was brought in to help with distribution and administration. Extra staff were recruited and trained to administer the jabs. Call centres were set up to reach, first, the over 80s and citizens known to be particularly vulnerable, then clinicians and front line workers, and the over 70s. In all, some 15 million would be vaccinated by the middle of February.

Before January was out, Johnson was telling the BBC that Britain had vaccinated more people than all 27 EU countries combined and that scientists at Oxford University had led the world in producing the first vaccine that could be stored at room temperature.

Then came a video released by Downing Street in which the prime minister claimed that ‘this amazing moment’ was due to the UK being freed from the shackles of the EU to enable “British scientists to produce the first effective treatment of the disease”. If his chest-beating was not enough to raise hackles in Brussels and beyond, the message was amplified by the British tabloids which rubbed salt into the wound, claiming the UK had vaccinated 14.5% of its population while the EU had only managed injections for 3.5%.

The cheerleader was Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, whose headlines ran: ‘EU’s total failure to handle Covid’, Von der Leyen’s Covid humiliation’; and ‘After everyone is vaccinated, let’s go and save Europe’.

Matters came to a head when the EU claimed that AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of the Oxford vaccine, appeared to be giving priority to the British contract. Shortly after Europe’s vaccine regulator gave approval to the vaccine, Astra Zeneca cut a planned delivery to the EU by almost two thirds, citing production difficulties at its Belgian plant. Within hours furious EU officials demanded that the company make up the gap with products sourced from its British factory.

The commission ordered all EU vaccine producers to notify them of potential exports of vaccines. Von der Leyen threatened to block the contracted supply of the Pfizer vaccine to Britain, a threat she withdrew within hours on legal advice that it would jeopardise the special accords with Northern Ireland, which remains within the European Single Market. The EU had failed to consult Belfast, Dublin or London, though all are parties to the protocol.

The row escalated further when President Macron announced that the Astra Zeneca-Oxford vaccine was not safe for those aged over 65, and would not be used in France for that age group. The claim was baseless.

Some EU leaders demanded an inquiry into why the Commission had been so slow in procuring and distributing vaccines, with calls for Von der Leyen’s resignation. Both her predecessor Jean-Claude Junker and Michel Barnier were criticised for intervention over export controls.

Von der Leyen refused to take responsibility for the EU’s failures, first assigning blame to the pharmaceutical giants, then criticising Commission staff, and finally suggesting – without evidence – that Britain had compromised safety by speedy approval of the Oxford vaccine. The accusation made headlines worldwide, fuelling doubts about the efficacy of anti-Covid 19 vaccines from Australia to Argentina and providing fodder for the anti-vaccine lobby, much to the anger of the World Health Organisation.

Why did Van der Leyen get it so wrong? We can only speculate. One obvious explanation is that although the foreign policy of the EU 27 nations is run from Brussels by a high Minister, health has traditionally been a matter for individual nations.

Getting agreement on the choice of vaccine, the quantity, and the price is a mammoth task. Some countries had their own ideas; Hungary’s Victor Orban ordered Russia’s Sputnik vaccine even before it received approval, while President Macron insisted on a commitment to a fledgling French product, development of which was later abandoned. One day last week France vaccinated only 5,000 compared with the UK’s more than 300,000.

Another plausible explanation could be the Commission president’s exceptionally heavy workload. The decision to centralise the EU’s vaccine supply coincided with many other issues and events: the transition of the US presidency, with all that involves for Europe; the distribution of the 750 billion Euro capital raising to support member countries in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic; the establishment ahead of Biden’s April 22 conference of a detailed strategy to combat climate change; conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean; the collapse of the Italian government; and rising tensions with Russia.

During the week, von der Leyen sleeps in a small studio adjoining her Berlaymont office, returning to her family in a German village at weekends. Having wrapped up the EU-UK trade deal over Christmas, she might be excused some slack but memories are short.

The fallout from all this angst is being felt across the world. The kind of tensions and divisions we have seen in Europe are in evidence elsewhere. In the United States, Biden has energised a national vaccination program. The Wall Street Journal has reported a Singapore minister as saying that it could take four or five years to get the coronavirus under control, as new variants take hold worldwide, making it clear there will fierce competition for scarce vaccine throughout that period.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has said: “We have reached the moment of truth,” urging world business leaders at this year’s Davos forum to work with poor nations to make sure everyone gets a jab. Yet the richer nations of the West, including the US and the EU, are both under siege with the virus and in no position or mood to make other than token efforts to help the world’s poor.

This has opened the door to China and Russia to take the initiative, offering vaccines they have developed in partnership deals with developing nations. Xi Jinping’s Covid-19 chief last month visited four African countries and three in South East Asia, including Indonesia and Myanmar, to offer Beijing’s help. Britain, with the highest number of Covid deaths in Europe but having now vaccinated more than 10 million people, is on course to vaccinate everyone over 70, front line workers and those who are clinically vulnerable by mid-February. It has decided to donate A$450 million to Covax, the global vaccine alliance backed by the World Health Organisation, a modest but worthwhile effort at cooperation.

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