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Europe's week: Intellectual property waiver and clampdown on China

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In this Sunday, March 21, 2021 file photo a vial and syringes of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, in Luton, England.
In this Sunday, March 21, 2021 file photo a vial and syringes of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, in Luton, England.   -   Copyright  Alberto Pezzali/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Across Europe, vaccination campaigns have finally been intensifying this week, but in poorer nations like India and Brazil, the virus rages on.

That's why the World Health Organization has previously proposed suspending intellectual property protection for vaccines against COVID-19, in order to speed up the production of jabs.

But governments within the European Union have been adamantly opposed.

Until this week, however, when US President Biden's administration announced that it is now backing plans for what is essentially a patent waiver.

And Brussels now seems to be on board.

"The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner. And that`s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiving intellectual property protection for covid vaccines could help achieve that objective," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday morning during the State of the Union 2021, an event organised by the European University Institute.

Crackdown against China

Part of the reason for Europe's previous intransigence on a patent waiver may be due to a desire not to hand over the precious mRNA technology developed by the West and used in Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna's coronavirus vaccines to countries like Russia and China.

But that's not Brussels' only concern in relation to Beijing.

The week saw a series of announcements and measures aimed at reducing Chinese influence and the EU's dependency on the Asian country.

On Monday it came out that the European Commission was suspending all efforts to ratify an investment deal with China because of tensions between Brussels and Beijing.

The agreement was reached in principle last December but had yet to receive the necessary endorsement from EU institutions, such as the European Parliament.

On Wednesday, Brussels made a fresh push at diversifying Europe's industry to decrease dependency on key imports from outside the bloc.

The world economy is currently suffering a global shortage of semiconductors, the chips that power data centres and millions of digital devices, due to the roll-out of 5G networks and the rise in teleworking.

And the industry is heavily concentrated in Asian countries, like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and particularly China.

The measures, which are just a set of guidelines and recommendations, rather than an enforceable piece of legislation, were announced alongside another set of measures targeting Beijing's influence on the continent.

The Commission said it wants to have a greater say on the acquisitions and subsidies made by foreign governments inside the bloc's single market, saying that countries like China and India overextend their economic reach in the bloc, taking over European companies and distorting competition through the generous use of state aid.

Around 3% of European companies are owned or controlled by non-EU investors, according to a 2016 analysis. However, this small percentage represents entities controlling more than 35% of total assets and responsible for 16 million jobs.

For the last 60 years, the European Union has had strong rules in place to scrutinise state aid but they only apply to financial contributions granted by EU governments. This presents an opportunity for non-EU countries to freely enter the single market and inject subsidies, such as zero-interest loans, unlimited guarantees, preferential tax treatments and direct grants.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said Wednesday: "Europe is a trade and investment superpower. In 2019, more than €7 trillion of foreign direct investments flowed into the EU. The openness of the single market is our biggest asset. But openness requires fairness."