EU vaccine protectionism: The plot thickens

Copyright: "Reservoir Dogs Poster" by Whistling in the Dark is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

At their summit this Thursday and Friday, EU state and government leaders will need to give their say on the proposal by the European Commission to toughen up the EU’s vaccine export restriction mechanism.

In practice, the EU wants stockpiles of active ingredients for AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines which are being produced in a factory run by the company Halix in the Netherlands, and which are being requested by the UK, to go to EU countries. AstraZeneca expects EMA approval for these ingredients on Thursday.

An EU official has claimed the EU wouldn’t be breaking any contract by doing this. That’s true, given that the EU would be preventing, as a third party, the UK’s contract with AstraZeneca from being fulfilled. Then the EU is doing something much worse: it is undermining the whole global market for vaccines, risking retaliation, which may threaten the EU’s own vaccine production.

If the EU would go even further, and impose an export ban on doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine produced in Belgium and Germany, this would “would hit Britain badly but not significantly help EU”, according to an analysis commissioned by The Guardian. This because the imposition of such an EU export ban would delay the UK Covid vaccine drive by two months, while only speeding up the full vaccination of every adult in the EU by “just over a week”.

This is largely theoretical, as such a move may well lead the UK to retaliate. Pfizer and BioNtech have reportedly warned EU leaders that production at the main vaccine factory in Belgium could “grind to a halt” within weeks if the UK moved to prevent exports of crucial ingredients, vital “fatty molecules” from a UK factory to the EU.

The plot has thickened since it has emerged that EU leaders are divided on the issue.

On the one hand, there are France, Italy and Germany, keen to go ahead. While France is often on the forefront when it comes to protectionism, a diplomat points out the move is actually inspired by the troubling electoral performance of the ruling Christian Democrats in Germany. In other words, when all else has failed to convince Germany, which may go-it-alone and unilaterally purchase the Sputnik Covid-19 vaccine from Russia, that the European Commission can be trusted with vaccine procurement, EU Commission President von der Leyen is doubling down with her vaccine protectionism.

Thankfully, some countries seem to be pushing back. The Benelux and Ireland are reportedly wary of such moves. A Dutch official has urged the UK to reach a deal with the EU Commission and AstraZeneca in order to avoid a “lose-lose scenario”, something the UK has opened up to, as British PM Boris Johnson has tried to convince Belgian PM Alexander De Croo not to let this happen.

However, the decision would be taken by qualified majority voting, which would mean that the more free-trade minded member states could be outvoted to serve short term electoral concerns and protectionist instincts in the bigger ones.

This means that on top of inflicting self-harm to the EU’s vaccination production ability, given the risk of retaliation, this could sow long lasting discord between EU member states.

The Times quotes a diplomat referring to possible British retaliation, saying that “It would be like that moment in Reservoir Dogs. If the EU pulls the trigger everyone’s guns go off and we are all dead”.

According to the UK government, its deal with AstraZeneca to supply the UK with 100m doses gives it first call on production from EU plants as well as British factories. Somehow, the EU Commission can’t admit that such a deal involving priority delivery is materially different from export restrictions. As a result, it can’t be used to justify export restrictions, as the EU Commission attempts to do.

Meanwhile, in another universe, confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine which the EU now desperately tries to get its hands on, is plummeting across Europe, with over half of Germans and 61% of the French believing the vaccine is unsafe.

International opinion isn’t exactly warming to the EU’s side of the argument, with this weekend’s Financial Times carrying the headline “the EU’s vaccine blunders” and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board lashing out at the EU in an editorial, arguing: “Protectionism, mercantilism, bureaucratic ineptitude, lack of political accountability, crippling safety-ism—it’s all here. The Keystone Kops in Brussels and European capitals would be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.”

This week, EU leaders have an opportunity to force the European Commission to abandon its fateful path.