EU leaders are likely to shy away from supporting the use of new powers to block Covid vaccine shipments to countries with better jab coverage such as the UK, according to a draft statement before a meeting of the bloc’s heads of state and government..
The European commission has increased its scope for blocking vaccine exports but disquiet among member states is set to be reflected in a muted statement at the end of the virtual summit on Thursday evening.
The latest draft summit conclusion has leaders underlining “the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations”.
Countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden, who are concerned about the impact on supply chains, have pushed back against any explicit reference to the commission’s revised regulation.
The commission will keep its new powers despite the lack of explicit backing from the leaders, but diplomatic sources from within the most sceptical member states said they hoped the “stick will never be used”.
Speaking in the Bundestag, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, notably did not reference the new powers but instead called on Europe to increase domestic vaccine production given the lack of exports from the UK and the US, describing the pandemic as a “great litmus test” of the EU’s capabilities.
“The problem at the moment with the vaccine supply isn’t so much due to the question how much was ordered, but more about how much can be manufactured on European soil,” she said.
“Because we can clearly see: British manufacturing plants manufacture for Great Britain, the US aren’t exporting anything, and therefore we rely on what can be produced in Europe and we have to expect this virus will preoccupy us for a long time.”
On Wednesday the commission updated its export authorisation mechanism to allow officials to block shipments to countries with a high level of vaccination coverage or those that restrict exports through law or in their contracts with suppliers.
The UK does not ban the export of vaccines, but the government signed a contract with AstraZeneca that obliges the Anglo-Swedish company to deliver doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire to Britain first.
The UK also appears to fall foul of the EU’s new criteria on vaccination coverage, with 45 jabs administered per 100 residents compared with 13 per 100 on average across the 27 member states.
The regulation, in force since January, previously only took into account whether a supplier was fulfilling its contract with the EU.
The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, rejected claims that the bloc was being protectionist. “We have a feeling that the vaccine nationalism is really on the other side of the Channel,” he told the Financial Times. “We are not seeing any vaccines in the UK arriving here.”
The EU has suffered from a major supply shortfall of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of a yield problem at a plant in Belgium and the company’s subsequent refusal to divert doses made in the UK.
The EU is threatening to block the export to the UK of an unspecified number of doses being made at an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands.
UK officials have been in negotiations since Monday on the issue. In a joint statement on Wednesday evening, the two sides said they were continuing to seek a “win-win” solution.
Breton told ambassadors on Wednesday that the UK’s interest in the jabs in the Netherlands was particularly acute as the government had not stockpiled vaccine for second doses, leaving them in need of production from Europe to fully vaccinate those administered with a first jab.
Meanwhile, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, warned the EU that the UK had contract law on its side. “I believe that free trading nations follow the law of contracts,” he told the Financial Times. “They have a ‘best efforts’ contract and we have an exclusivity deal.”
The 27 EU heads of state and government are meeting from midday GMT. The US president, Joe Biden, is due to attend the virtual summit on Thursday evening to discuss future cooperation. The last US president to attend a meeting of EU leaders was Barack Obama in 2009 when he attended a summit in Prague.