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Has the EU's vaccine rollout lost Brussels support in poorer nations?

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A doctor and nurse take care of patients with COVID-19 at a former military hospital in the capital Sarajevo, Bosnia
A doctor and nurse take care of patients with COVID-19 at a former military hospital in the capital Sarajevo, Bosnia   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Kemal Softic
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The European Union has so far secured 600 million coronavirus vaccine jabs, and despite criticisms over the slow rollout in a number of member states, vaccination programmes are well underway.

More will follow as other vaccine candidates such as the Moderna one are approved, and the bloc currently has enough doses in the pipeline to immunise some 80% of its population, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

This follows a pattern for non-EU high-income countries in Europe, such as Switzerland and the UK, which have secured large numbers of jabs for their populations in bilateral deals with manufacturers.

But those on the lower-income scale in the European neighbourhood are lagging behind.

Brussels has pledged to help out, especially the Western Balkan nations who are attempting to join the union, and all of them are signed up to COVAX, the global programme to get vaccinations to all countries regardless of their ability to pay.

Being reliant on COVAX alone will, according to the scheme itself, at best provide just 20% immunisation coverage across a country’s population by the end of the year.

EU pledges to share vaccines with ‘the neighbourhood’

Earlier this month, while announcing 300 million more doses for the EU, von der Leyen said the EU was securing more doses than it would need, and that it would be helping out its neighbours.

The Western Balkan countries to the bloc’s east have already been promised a €70 million pot to allow them to participate in the EU’s vaccine rollout.

This would act as a sort of bridge, between now and when the COVAX scheme begins to deliver jabs to partner countries.

However this EU scheme is still under development, so the details of how countries outside of the EU will get hold of EU vaccine stock are yet to be seen.

In the meantime, EU countries are rolling out their vaccination programmes, while those on the outside wait for COVAX to start, or try to sign their own bilateral deals with manufacturers.

Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, last week hit out at Brussels over its "morally and politically unacceptable" vaccine rollout, accusing countries of taking an "everyone for themselves" attitude.

Engjellushe Morina, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the Albanian PM maybe “overreacting a bit for PR purposes”, but she does point out the EU may have missed an opportunity to bolster relations with its nearest European neighbours to the east.

“It’s bad timing for Europe to build its credibility in the region. People were so pro-EU a few years ago and now that’s not the case, and with these new developments it doesn’t look so great,” she tells Euronews.

Europe has “missed another opportunity” which she says is a “recurring theme”.

“What would have been great but highly unlikely is that western Balkan countries were included in the Commission’s economic recovery plan. The next step is these countries should have been included in the vaccine planning, in a timely manner, but instead this is what they get, they get €70m and everything is being delayed.”

Varied picture across Balkan states

“Fear, uncertainty and a feeling of vulnerability are dominating public discourse in the region at this time,” says Srdjan Majstorovic, chairman of the governing board of the European Policy Centre, a Serbian think tank.

Serbia was the first Western Balkan nation to start giving jabs, starting last year in fact, before the EU.

More than 20,000 Serbians have received the vaccine, and on the weekend the country received a shipment of one million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine - enough for 500,000 people.

Albania began its programme last week, with doses from an undisclosed EU nation. One of the first to receive it, PM Edi Rama said he was not “authorised” to say which country had provided the 975 doses.

He added that “a symbolic number of vaccines” would be given to neighbouring Kosovo for frontline medical personnel.

“In this case, it is important to think not like the EU, but to think that we are not alone because Kosovo and Albania are one in joy and trouble,” Rama said.

Kosovo has secured 500,000 doses from Pfizer, according to its health minister Armend Zemaj, with the first doses due to arrive in February. Albania has a deal for the same amount, while Bosnia and others are expecting their first doses via COVAX in April.

Meanwhile, leaders of eastern EU member states last week called on Brussels to ramp up its support for the bloc’s neighbours, including those nations that are part of the Eastern partnership: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

“We believe that our borders will not be safe if we do not extend our support to our immediate neighbours,” they wrote in a letter to the Commission.

“Our Eastern Partners have on numerous occasions expressed their appreciation for the EU’s COVID-related assistance and pleaded for facilitated access to the vaccine.”

While there remains a high level of desire to join the EU, “it seems the EU is losing the hearts and souls of the people in the Western Balkans” Srdjan Majstorovic tells Euronews, citing the behaviour and narratives of Western Balkan leaders who are quick to point their fingers at Brussels. “The EU is a neat scapegoat in a sense in this time of crisis.”

And he says there is “a whiff of hypocrisy” about the EU failing to adequately incorporate its neighbours into its vaccination plans.

“A large number of health workers emigrated from the region and are contributing to the member states’ health system. This push and pull relationship we have needs to be improved,” he says.

Morina said “these are the times when no one can be better off than anyone else”.

“If vaccine delivery is not timely in the Western Balkans, the diaspora in the EU of these countries is huge, and you cannot stop everyone coming back and forth into Europe,” she says.

“So in a way European citizens will also be endangered that the virus could travel from these countries to Europe again if everyone isn’t vaccinated in time.”

COVAX aiming to provide 20% coverage by end of 2021

Without the means to strike bilateral deals, many lower-income countries are therefore relying on the COVAX scheme.

Headed by Gavi, the World Health Organization, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), COVAX is intended to ensure no country is left behind in the global vaccinations effort, and has promised shipments of enough vaccines to protect health and social care workers “in the first half of 2021”, in countries that have requested it.

With the agreements it has reached with manufacturers and countries that are supporting the scheme, COVAX says it will have at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses available to 92 eligible economies, and aims to have 20% population coverage by the end of the year.

The EU has given €500 million to the COVAX scheme, on top of its €70 million pledge to its neighbours, but while COVAX aimed to get vaccines out in the first quarter of this year, they are not expected until April.

This has left some European countries - not to mention much of the rest of the world - feeling left out, as the wealthier nations buy up the stock they need in bilateral deals.

A North Macedonian epidemiologist, Dragan Danilovski, summed up his feelings to broadcaster TV 24 with a reference to the sinking of the Titanic: “The rich have grabbed all the available lifeboats, leaving the less fortunate behind.”

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