Brussels Faces Backlash Over Vaccine Controversy

The EU has faced international criticism over its new controls of coronavirus vaccine exports. The measures were the source of particular worry in the UK and Ireland after the EU indicated it would override part of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

What are the measures?

The EU announced measures to control exports of Covid-19 vaccinations produced within the EU this week amid disagreements over supply shortfalls. The transparency mechanism requires vaccine companies to seek permission from national governments before exporting excess vaccine doses. EU countries can deny authorisation for vaccine exports if the company making them has not met the supply agreed to in their contracts with the EU. The controls will affect 100 countries – most notably the US, the UK, Canada and Japan – with many poor nations exempt from the restrictions. Countries in the EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein Norway and Switzerland), Israel, Lebanon, Western Balkans, North Africa and many elsewhere are also exempt.

Why were the measures announced?

In 2020, the EU agreed to buy 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, and the vaccine received the approval of EU regulators last Friday. The bloc’s plans came after AstraZeneca announced that it would only be able to provide just over a quarter of the more than 100 million doses it had committed to the EU for the first quarter. The Commission’s discontent was clear. AstraZeneca’s announcement highlighted the fact that vaccine supply across the EU is dwindling. The company’s inability to meet its 100 million dose target also means that the EU’s vaccination rollout targets, based on advanced vaccine purchase agreements, will not be met. The EU initially suggested that AstraZeneca’s UK production plants make up the difference in vaccine doses, given that the company’s EU plants had supplied the UK when its factories faced supply shortages a few weeks ago. However, the company has railed against claims that it is failing to fulfil its contract, publicly released by the Commission, due to a “reasonable best efforts” provision. It claims that this clause does not commit the company to a hard date of providing a certain number of doses.

What was the Northern Ireland concern?

The EU’s export controls initially involved overriding part of the bloc’s Brexit deal with Northern Ireland. Under the deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol, which prevents the presence of a hard border between the Republic and the North, goods from the EU should be exported to Northern Ireland without checks. However, the bloc invoked Article 16 of the agreement, which allows aspects of the deal to be unilaterally overwritten. This course of action was taken to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a backdoor for vaccine exports from the EU to the UK. High-level politicians in Belfast, Dublin and London all criticised the move, which many say would effectively place a hard-border on the island. However, the commission revised the export rules after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s engagement with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Instead, compromised regulations will see northbound vaccines crossing the Irish border recorded in Dublin, but will not face a risk of being blocked.

While a compromise has been struck, much damage has still been done. The commission’s “grave error of judgement” has inflicted considerable reputational damage. Critics say that the EU, which argued so strongly (some even say patronisingly) in favour of the Protocol, was also quick to undermine its own arguments. In addition to this, many DUP members, already opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol’s requirement for checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the UK, are furious at the EU’s short-handed approach. They believe that the bloc’s initial willingness to invoke Article 16 was an act of aggression and a sign that they will undermine the Protocol whenever the EU single-market is at risk of competition. The Commission’s decision to forego consulting the Irish government, whose leader discovered the bloc’s plans via public announcement, has also added to the bedlam and growing disquiet surrounding the EU’s vaccination programme.  

Who else has criticised the EU?

While a compromise was reached with the UK government, many third countries have voiced their displeasure with the EU. Worries about “vaccine nationalism”, initially raised by Boris Johnson, are echoed by representatives from Japan, Canada and South Korea, who now require approval from various national governments to acquire EU-produced vaccines. A significant possibility is that EU countries not meeting their own immediate, short-term vaccination targets will keep, rather than export, extra vaccine doses. This prospect is the main source of international criticism garnered by the EU. South Korea’s foreign minister warned the bloc against fostering “global disunity” by withholding vaccines, despite having ordered roughly enough to vaccinate its population twice, while Canada’s trade minister emphasised the importance of ensuring the openness and stability of world supply chains for effective vaccine rollouts. The WHO also repudiated the idea of vaccine nationalism, saying it would be a “catastrophic moral failure” that would slow down global recovery and increase economic inequality. More positively, President von der Leyen announced that AstraZeneca has committed to begin distribution a week early, in addition to providing an extra 9 million doses and increasing their European manufacturing capacity. Representatives of the EU have offered repeated assurances that the vaccine export controls are merely precautionary and are unlikely to be widely used. How true this is will be borne out in the coming months.

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