Ursula von der Leyen says bloc wants to see ‘reciprocity and proportionality’ in exports
The EU is prepared to take exceptional steps to halt exports of Covid-19 vaccines to Britain and secure doses for its own citizens unless the UK starts shipping shots to the bloc, the European commission president has said.
Ursula von der Leyen’s threat quickly produced a strong response from the UK, with the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, accusing the EU of engaging in brinkmanship of the type exhibited by “less democratic countries”.
Von der Leyen’s comments come the same day NHS England revealed that people under 50 will have to wait a month longer than planned for their Covid vaccination because of a major shortage of vaccine that will start at the end of the month.
The commission president said that the EU wanted “to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports and we are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that” . She added: “This is about making sure that Europe gets its fair share.”
Von der Leyen said the EU could trigger article 122 of the EU treaty, an emergency clause which would allow the bloc to take exceptional measures such as seizing production of vaccines and suspending intellectual property rights “if severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products” to member states.
“All options are on the table,” she said. “We are in the crisis of the century. We have to make sure Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible. Human lives, civil liberties and our economy are dependent on the speed of vaccination moving forward.”
Article 122 was last used during the oil crisis of the 1970s, she said.
Von der Leyen said the EU had received more than 300 requests for overseas vaccine shipments over the past six weeks and refused just one, and the bloc had exported 41m doses to 33 countries.
“This shows that Europe is trying to make international cooperation work,” she said. “But open roads run in both directions … It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the EU are going to other countries that are also producing vaccines, but hardly anything is coming back.”
Von der Leyen said the bloc had exported 10m doses to the UK in the past six weeks, making it “country number one as far as exports from the EU is concerned”.
But while the UK was producing AstraZeneca vaccines, and “there are even two sites in the UK that are in our contract for potential deliveries for the EU … we’re still waiting for doses to come from the UK. So this is an invitation for reciprocity.”
The majority of vaccines exported from the EU to the UK have been made by Pfizer, which distributes globally from its European production sites. The EU has blocked only one export request, a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses from Italy to Australia.
But Raab said he thought Von der Leyen’s remarks “takes some explaining”, saying that it would be wrong for the EU or any other state to be interfering with “lawfully contracted supply” in remarks on the sidelines of Aspen conference.
“Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation,” Raab added. “It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”
The foreign secretary said he had been in touch with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, and that ministers had been “reliably informed that they weren’t aware of any plans to restrict lawfully contracted supply” to the UK.
Von der Leyen said earlier that while BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna were meeting their contractual obligations to the bloc, AstraZeneca was on course to deliver just 30m of its promised 90m doses in the first quarter and 70m of a contracted 180m in the second.
The British government has repeatedly said it has not imposed an export ban on vaccine components or completed doses, but it did ensure that vaccine doses produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca at the sites in Staffordshire and Oxford would supply Britain first.
The EU has been angered by the refusal of the Anglo-Swedish firm to redirect doses in light of production shortfalls from its European facilities. AstraZeneca referred all questions about the row to the UK government.
If the vaccine supply situation did not change, Von der Leyen said, “we will have to reflect on how to make exports to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness. And on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate.”
She said the US, which does operate a formal export ban, was not such an issue because “with the US the reciprocity is given. There are no exports of vaccines from the US to the EU, but nor are there exports from the EU to the US. And there is a seamless flow back and forth of pre-products and raw materials.”