The European Union's heads of state and government decided at a virtual summit Thursday to withhold explicit approval for a ban on vaccine exports proposed by the bloc's president, Ursula von der Leyen, opting instead to preserve "global supply chains" and avoid sparking a vaccine war.
Von der Leyen highlighted to summiteers the large vaccine shipments sent across the English Channel, amounting to a large proportion of the coronavirus shots administered in Britain. She noted EU plants had exported 77 million doses internationally since December 1, in addition to delivering 88 million doses within the EU's 27 countries.
She urged the EU's national leaders to support regulations the European Commission introduced midweek allowing for a vaccine export ban amid a severe shortfall of doses in the EU.
She was backed by French President Emmanuel Macron in the video meeting, who said, "We must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don't respect their commitments with Europeans."
Leaders of Spain and Italy also demanded vaccine export curbs, arguing for a halt to shipments to countries with more successful inoculation programs or lower rates of coronavirus infections.
But the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden expressed strong opposition to an export ban, which has been the subject of negotiations between Brussels and Britain, and they managed to get wording introduced into the post-summit statement to emphasize "the importance of global supply chains."
The statement also urged companies such as the British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, which has failed to deliver timely supplies to the EU and has been the focus of European frustration, to "ensure predictability of their vaccine production and respect contractual delivery deadlines."
The EU and Britain have been tussling for weeks over shortfalls in deliveries to the bloc from AstraZeneca. The dispute also has drawn in Australia. A shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine destined for Australia was blocked earlier this month by the EU.
Later Friday, though, the EU's internal market commissioner Thierry Breton appeared to undercut what the heads of government and state agreed upon just hours before.
He warned vaccines manufactured in the EU by AstraZeneca would have to remain in Europe until the company meets its commitments.
Frustration across Europe
The mood in European capitals is turning sour over a vaccine rollout that has created controversy and has been plagued by missteps. Locals complain they can't see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Coronavirus infections are rising rapidly across the continent, in contrast to Britain and America, where much quicker and better resourced rollouts are seeing a significant drop in the rate of confirmed cases and deaths.
Much of the frustration among member states is being directed at von der Leyen, who was the driving force behind persuading member states to sign on to a vaccine procurement and distribution program managed by the authorities in Brussels.
She and EC commissioners argued a bloc-wide approach would alleviate the risk of vaccine rivalry between member states as they scrambled to place procurement orders and would advertise the strengths of the EU, which in turn would help garner public support for greater political integration. But it hasn't turned out that way.
The threat of an export ban still remains, though, EU officials said. EU leaders turned up the heat Friday on AstraZeneca, insisting the company must "catch up" on vaccine deliveries and honor its commitments to the EU. The bloc's officials say the company exported 21 million doses manufactured in the EU, largely in Belgium, to Britain. They say the EU is not getting its fair share of doses.
But British officials counter they did a better job in negotiating and arranging supply chains than their counterparts in Brussels and signed initial contracts three months before the slow-moving EC inked deals. Britain has administered 46 shots for every 100 people, compared to the EU's 14 per 100. Ahead of Thursday's summit, Britain sought to reduce tensions by offering in talks to share doses soon to be produced at an AstraZeneca vaccine plant in the Netherlands, run by a subcontractor.
But the failure by the EU national leaders to back von der Leyen and her commissioners is being seen in Brussels as a serious blow to the leadership of the former German defense minister, a close ally of the French president, amid mounting signs some member states are starting to lose faith in her judgment.
Hours before the summit got under way, her predecessor as the EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned that von der Leyen's plan could trigger a "stupid" vaccine war. In a highly unusual intervention, Juncker said the bloc would risk "major reputational damage" if it sought to block shipments of vaccine made by companies in the EU.
"This cannot be dealt with in a war atmosphere. I don't like that. This has to be dealt with in an intense dialogue between the European Commission and the British government. We are not in war, and we are not enemies. We are allies," he said in a BBC interview.
His intervention added to rising fears among some of the member states that an export ban would backfire, leading to retaliation by countries impacted by the curbs, and tarnish the reputation of the bloc, raising questions about its commitment to rules-based order.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, noted during the summit that Pfizer's vaccine production in Belgium was dependent on ingredients sent by British factories. Ireland's leader pointed out that Pfizer received more than 200 ingredients from 19 countries to be able to manufacture its vaccine in European plants.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel shifted her position and also belatedly withheld backing for an export ban, saying the EU needs to "act in a politically reasonable fashion."
Earlier in the summit, Merkel and her Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, squabbled over the EU's distribution of vaccine between member states. Five central European and Baltic countries, led by Kurz, are complaining of unequal treatment and they raised strong objections over the apportionment of vaccines during an ill-tempered exchange.
Kurz insisted that his country should receive extra doses. Merkel shot back that Austria had previously agreed to a formula that gave each member state an equal chance to purchase a share of vaccines but failed to order enough. The summit agreed to shift apportionment of vaccine away from a steering committee to the ambassadors of member states in Brussels, a recipe, some analysts say, for further political dispute.
But the overall problem of vaccine procurement remains — EU leaders have acknowledged they were slow in ordering and failed to order enough doses from a broader range of vaccine developers. "We are in a race against time between the third wave and the vaccine rollout across Europe," French President Macron told reporters. "And this battle for vaccines is the battle we must win in coming weeks and months."
Public pressure is mounting on European governments to speed up the vaccine rollout. A pan-Europe poll released Thursday showed that just 36 percent of Europeans believe the EU has played an effective role in battling the pandemic.
The poll, conducted for the International Republican Institute, a U.S. NGO, in partnership with European parliamentary groups, found high levels of alarm over the spread of the virus, with 93 percent of respondents in Spain saying they are very anxious over the continued spread.