Suddenly, the EUâ€™s top diplomats â€”Â the Committee of Permanent Representatives â€” look more like the Committee of Pro-Rata Referees.
After EU heads of state and government spent hours arguing during a video summit on Thursday about how to divvy up an extra load of 10 million coronavirus vaccine doses, they gave up and asked diplomats to settle the matter.
The decision to seek arbitration among the ambassadors came after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz virtually sabotaged the meeting by insisting that his country receive extra doses, even though European Commission data shows Austria faring relatively well among EU nations in terms of vaccine supplies. There’s also the issue that all EU countries, Austria included, had previously agreed to a pro-rata formula that gives each member state an equal chance to purchase their fair share of shots.
But still, they ducked and delegated the file.
It all amounted to a notable role-reversal, given it’s typically these EU leaders who are called upon to resolve disputes that their ministers and ambassadors cannot.
The internal squabble was just the latest aspect of the EUâ€™s coronavirus vaccine program to become embroiled in controversy. And the fight underscored the continuing pressure politicians are under to vaccinate their constituents as fast as possible, with supplies scarce and a third coronavirus wave building across the continent.
During the virtual summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented new data showing that EU-based vaccine manufacturers had shipped some 77 million doses internationally since Dec. 1, in addition to delivering 88 million doses within the EUâ€™s 27 countries.
The statistics were intended in part as a defense against criticism of the EUâ€™s vaccine rollout, but also as pushback against the U.K., which has raced ahead in inoculating its own population but has not been exporting vaccines to help the rest of the world. In fact, 21 million doses delivered to Britain came from the EU, according to von der Leyen.
On Wednesday, the Commission and the U.K. government had issued a joint statement pledging to work together to increase vaccine production. But on Thursday tensions flared again as von der Leyen noted she was unaware of the U.K. exporting any doses and was looking forward to London demonstrating â€œtransparency.â€
Squaring the circle
The drawn-out argument with Kurz annoyed some of the EUâ€™s most senior leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Some officials noted with exasperation that every EU country was allowed to purchase vaccines according to the pro-rata formula, and the only discrepancies were the result of some capitals â€”Â notably including Vienna â€”Â opting not to buy their full allotment.
Even after forgoing some purchase opportunities, Austria is still in the top 10 of EU countries in two key categories: doses administered per 100 people over 18, and doses administered per 100 people in the total population. Still, Kurz insisted his country had somehow been shortchanged and demanded greater access to an advance delivery of 10 million doses from BioNTech/Pfizer expected between April 1 and June 30.
In their conclusions, the leaders reiterated their commitment to the pro-rata formula, but tasked the ambassadors to work out details. â€œWe confirm the pro-rata population key for the allocation of vaccines,â€ they said, adding: â€œWe invite the Committee of Permanent Representatives to address the issue of the speed of deliveries of vaccines when allocating the 10 million BioNTech-Pfizer accelerated doses in the second quarter of 2021 in a spirit of solidarity.â€
Merkel, speaking to reporters after the virtual summit, gently chided countries that had not made use of their full allotment â€” a clear reference to Austria. “After a long discussion, we asked Coreper to find a fair solution within the framework of solidarity,â€ Mekel said, adding: â€œOf course we want to stick to the pro-rata approach for each country and still apply solidarity mechanisms.â€
â€œIt turns out that not everyone has made use of pro-rata,â€ she said. â€œAnd now the issue is how do we keep pro-rata as much as possible, even with the 10 million, and still show solidarity toward those who don’t yet have pro-rata share of vaccine deliveries.”
It is, Merkel acknowledged, “something like squaring the circle.”
Rutte, at his own news conference, noted that Bulgaria, Latvia and Croatia were among EU countries that genuinely need help obtaining more vaccines, but he pointedly did not describe any special need for Austria.
â€œWe think that when you look at the template, that particularly Bulgaria, Latvia and Croatia have an issue and we want to help,â€ Rutte said, adding: â€œSome others also have asked to join this issue. For example, Austria. But when you look at the template, Austria is not in a bad shape at the moment.â€
Rutte suggested the EU could re-evaluate the situation of individual countries as time goes on but said there was no current reason to grant Austria special consideration.
Kurz claims victory
Nevertheless, Kurz sought to claim victory on Twitter, noting that the decision on how to divide the doses would be made by ambassadors and not by the EUâ€™s vaccine steering board, a panel of experts that includes one representative from each of the 27 countries. Kurz also suggested he had won an adjustment in the formula, but there was no evidence of this being true. â€œWith the 10 million additional doses of vaccine, a fairer delivery of vaccines in the EU should be achieved in the second quarter,â€ he tweeted.Â
Leaders readily acknowledged the pressure they feel in responding to the pandemic. “We are in a race against time between the third wave and the vaccine rollout across Europe,â€ French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters. “And this battle for vaccines is the battle we must win in coming weeks and months.”
On Wednesday, the Commission put forward a plan to toughen its vaccine export control rules, potentially creating additional powers to block shipments from companies not fulfilling their contractual obligations to the EU. The new rules would also allow shipments to be stopped to countries that produce vaccines but do not export doses, or to countries that have higher vaccination rates than the EU. Officials have insisted they hope not to use the restrictions but that they are necessary to maintain pressure.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said leaders hoped to avoid any disruption in global supply chains that might occur as part of a vaccine trade war. â€œGlobal value chains should remain as frictionless as possible,â€ De Croo said. â€œThe moment that export restrictions and so on would be used in a non-targeted way,Â you would end up with only losers, and the losers would be our population who would get vaccines later.â€
De Croo said it was important that restrictions are imposed only on producers â€œnot respecting what we agreed onâ€ and that such bans serve as a measure of â€œlast resort.â€
And he stressed that restrictions should only be imposed on producers â€œnot respecting what we agreed onâ€ and that such bans serve as a measure of â€œlast resort.â€
But even contemplating such extreme measures is a remarkable place for EU leaders to be just months after the bloc proudly announced its agreements to secure several hundred million vaccines.Â
Now, EU leaders are sniping at each other and at the U.K., and seething atÂ AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish biomedical giant whose production problemsÂ have leftÂ the EU tens of millions of doses short of expectations. Von der Leyen on Thursday night reflected on what might have been, had the bloc just gotten what it thought it was promised.
“We know we could have been much faster if all pharmaceutical companies had fulfilled their contracts,â€ she said.
Hanne Cokelaere, Cristina Gallardo, Carlo Martuscelli and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.
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