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'Wholly unnecessary': Criticism mounts on Brussels over vaccine furore

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MEPs are demanding answers from President von der Leyen.
MEPs are demanding answers from President von der Leyen.   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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It's been a tumultuous last week for EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

She and other senior figures at the European Commission have come under scrutiny over the speed of the EU's vaccine rollout.

In some regions of Spain, new vaccinations had to be stopped because of the delays, while in Germany federal health minister Jens Spahn took to Twitter to say that vaccine shortages could last for 10 weeks.

Things took a turn for the worse in late January when AstraZeneca told Brussels there would be a 60% shortfall in vaccine deliveries in the first quarter of this year. The EU's 27 member states faced being left with 31 million doses, instead of the planned 80 million. Another vaccine manufacturer, Pfizer, also announced shortages until mid-February.

In a bid to reassert its authority, Brussels entered a very public row with AstraZeneca, implicitly suggesting the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was sending to the UK doses supposed to be earmarked for the EU.

The heated back-and-forth came to a boil last Friday when the European Commission released the AstraZeneca contract in order to back up its claims.

"There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear," von der Leyen told Deutschlandfunk radio.

However, the contract was so heavily redacted that, instead of dispelling any possible doubts, it created new questions.

Screenshot taken from the contract between European Commission and AstraZeneca published at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_302
Estimated delivery schedule included in the AstraZeneca contract.Screenshot taken from the contract between European Commission and AstraZeneca published at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_302

The situation worsened further when the European Commission introduced a regulation to control the export of coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the EU.

It insisted the move was necessary to tackle "the current lack of transparency" surrounding the vaccines pre-ordered from AstraZeneca by Brussels.

Despite the assurances and the long list of countries exempted, the decision was criticised and raised fears of a zero-sum vaccine war.

"If you start disrupting these kind of supply chains, it's a net losing proposition on the whole," Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel Think Tank, told Euronews.

The World Health Organization, which had been warning against vaccine nationalism since the start of the pandemic, felt compelled to add to the criticism.

"Let’s say it is not helpful to have any country at this stage putting export bans or barriers that will not allow for the free movement of the necessary ingredients that will make vaccines, diagnostics and other medicines available to all the world," said Dr Mariângela Simão, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Drug Access, Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals.

A ‘wholly unnecessary’ move

The criticism did not stop at the fact that the European Commission, a long-time defender of free trade and multilateralism, was resorting to protectionism in the midst of a global health crisis.

Then it emerged Brussels had decided to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and impose checks alongside the Irish border. The European Commission feared Northern Ireland could be used as a backdoor to avoid exports control and bring EU-made vaccines into British territory.

The move sent shockwaves across Ireland and the United Kingdom. Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, called it an "incredibly hostile and aggressive act by the EU".

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who had acted as Chair of the Brexit Steering Group, declared that "vaccine nationalism, wherever it comes from, is a dead-end".

The chaotic Friday ended with von der Leyen holding separate phone calls with the prime ministers of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The conversations resulted in the European Commission back-pedalling and taking Article 16 off the table.

"We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities," von der Leyen tweeted on Friday at an unusual hour (12.37 am CET).

Irish PM Micheál Martin later admitted to the BBC that people were "blindsided by the decision" and the European Commission should have reached out to him before resorting to Article 16, which was designed for exceptional situations of serious economical difficulties. "We've had that conversation and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned," he said.

Mairead McGuinness, European Commissioner for Financial Affairs, shared the dismay. "I put my hands up on behalf of the Commission,” she told RTÉ. "This has not been good for the European Commission."

Spanish foreign affairs minister Arancha González Laya said invoking Article 16 had been an "accident." The New York Times described the whole affair as "a sudden and embarrassing U-turn".

MEPs were equally disappointed and concerned.

"The most frightening thing in all of this [is that] there was no political proofing of a very sensitive issue. Surely, you would believe that the European Commission president and those around her advising, and the broader Commission itself, would have been aware of the importance of the protocol," Irish MEP Billy Kelleher, from the Renew Europe group, told Euronews. "I believe they [the Commission] acted with haste, they didn’t do it with due diligence."

Kelleher deplored the invoking of Article 16 as "wholly unnecessary" because there was "no evidence that vaccines would be flowing through the Republic of Ireland and into Northern Ireland". The MEP fears the debacle might have damaged the credibility of the European Commission and the EU-UK free trade agreement in the long term.

Renew Europe president Dacian Cioloş has already invited Von der Leyen to face questions in the European Parliament and clarify the events that took place on Friday. According to the Financial Times, the team of European commissioners, which takes decisions collectively based on the principle of collegiality, received the final draft of the exports control regulation, including the activation of Article 16, only 30 minutes before it was due to be adopted.

From 'V-Day' to 'Black Friday'

In late December, Von der Leyen hailed the beginning of vaccination across Europe as a "touching moment of unity". One month later, the European Commission had publicly denounced a pharmaceutical company, imposed controls over vaccine exports and almost triggered the nuclear option of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Brussels is now trying to reverse course and strike a more conciliatory tone, although answers remain evasive and unclear.

On Monday, Eric Mamer, the European Commission's chief spokesman, faced reporters for the first time since the Friday mix-up.

Mamer explained that the cabinet of Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, whose portfolio encompasses trade, was the one in charge of the exports control regulation and, therefore, responsible for the decision to activate Article 16.

The spokesman said the legislative file was discussed between different cabinets and led to a "decision in principle", which was the one Dombrovskis, alongside the health commissioner, presented on Friday afternoon.

But then, according to Mamer, the final decision that was taken by the College of Commissioners actually excluded the Article 16 provision.

"Only the Pope is infallible," Eric Mamer said. "Mistakes can happen along the way. The important thing is that you recognise them early on, in this case, so early that it was before the decision was finalised, and that you correct them."

On Sunday, von der Leyen announced that AstraZeneca will supply the EU with nine million additional doses of its vaccine in the first quarter of 2021, for a total of 40 million – still a far cry from the 80 million initially forecast.

BioNTech later said that it will provide up to 75 million more vaccine doses to the EU, but in the second quarter of 2021.

While the news will be welcomed by EU member states, many of which have almost depleted their vaccine stocks, the promised supplies might not arrive soon enough to prevent a widespread halt in inoculations. Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn has hinted that vaccines from China and Russia could be used in Europe to compensate the current deficit – on the condition they are approved by the European Medecines Agency.

In Belgium, the shortages are so severe that some vaccination centres will not be able to open their doors.

"Everything is postponed. It’s really a pity because we were ready to open the 10 vaccination centres in Brussels: half of them by the first of February, the other half by the first of March. But we see that we will be having troubles with supply just to open the five foreseen for February," Inge Neven, from the Belgian Federal Agency of Medicines and Health, said in an interview with Euronews. "The whole quantity is much lower than expected."