National leaders of the European Union are gathering over video conference to address a surge in Covid-19 infections across the continent and efforts to ramp up vaccination campaigns.
The 27 leaders are expected to address plans to harden the bloc’s export controls by the European Commission that would allow for curbs on sending vaccines to certain countries outside the EU that have a higher vaccination rates or are not exporting vaccines to the bloc in turn.
A joint declaration by Britain and the EU to seek to work together to keep supply chains open has helped ease tensions over the issue, which sparked fears in the United Kingdom that its supply of exports of vaccines from the EU could dry up.
National governments are under pressure to ramp up vaccinations as a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections threatens the continent, filling hospitals, triggering renewed restrictions, and disrupting travel and the economy. But there are mixed views among member states towards the hardening of export controls, with Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands concerned it risks disrupting complex international supply chains and retaliatory action elsewhere.
“As the epidemiological situation worsens in many member states, it is more important than ever that we use every tool available to us to increase the production, supply and distribution of vaccines,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said ahead of the European Council summit.
“Vaccine supply chains are complex and international and we need to keep them open to help us ramp up supply.”
Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald said the threat of an export ban on vaccines by the EU is a “reserve position”.
It does not fit well with the EU to be discussing bans, she told Newstalk Breakfast. The EU has received 380 export requests to 33 countries and had turned down only one.
There was now a supply choke point, but there had been a different “co-operative” tone in talks in recent days, she added.
“The mood music is changing.”
The EU was taking a global approach to the pandemic and supply of vaccines and expected the same approach from others, however, the UK was not responding with the same level of reciprocity, she said.
“The EU felt very let down by the UK.”
Ms Fitzgerald also pointed out that the EU had facilitated supply of vaccines to 93 struggling countries through Covax while there had been no transparency by the UK about what they had done.
Fierce global competition for vaccines is squeezing the available supply. India expected to curb its exports in response to a rise in local infections, while both Britain and the US have committed to vaccinating their own populations before exporting vaccines for use elsewhere.
EU officials say they hope that the tightened controls will not have to be used but that the prospect will be enough to strong-arm pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca into delivering its promised doses, after it drastically fell behind on delivery by as much as 70 per cent.
“If you have a big stick, you don’t always have to use it,” one remarked. Under the system, pharmaceutical companies that have supply contracts with the EU would need a permit to export such vaccines out of the bloc, unless they are destined for 92 low- and middle-income countries which are exempt.
The member state government where the factory is located or the European Commission could refuse the permit on a case-by-case basis, if the doses are destined for a place which is not exporting in turn to the EU or which has a higher overall vaccination rate in its population.
As the issue is a trade matter, the European Commission has the power to push ahead with the plan even if not all member states agree.
US president Joe Biden is to address the council, a rare intervention that signals the desire of both sides to strengthen the transatlantic relationship after a difficult period under his predecessor Donald Trump.