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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will on Wednesday propose toughening the EU’s vaccine export restrictions to give Brussels more power to block shipments, especially to the U.K. and other vaccine-producing countries that are not permitting international shipments of doses, officials and diplomats said.
By presenting the revised rules during the weekly College of Commissioners meeting, von der Leyen will be following through on repeated threats issued over the past week in which she and other officials warned that countries like the U.K. must show greater “reciprocity” by allowing doses manufactured within their borders to be exported.
The U.K. and the U.S. are the main countries that fit such a description and only the U.K. is currently competing with the EU for deliveries from AstraZeneca, which has experienced a shortfall in production amounting to tens of millions of doses.
The new regulation will go substantially further than the initial export control mechanism imposed by the Commission in January, which allowed EU countries or the Commission to block shipments only of vaccines made by companies that were failing to fulfill their contractual obligations to the EU.
The new rules will add provisions to cover the concepts of “reciprocity” and “proportionality,” a senior EU official said late Tuesday — meaning that shipments could be blocked to countries where vaccines are produced but that don’t show reciprocity by exporting doses, as well as to countries that have managed to achieve far higher vaccination rates among their population than the EU.
On both counts, this would potentially allow the Commission to block shipments to the U.K. not only of the AstraZeneca vaccine, given that company’s failure to deliver promised doses, but also of vaccines made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. Such a move would be considered drastic and potentially anger not only the companies but also the British government. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants to avoid a trade war that could disrupt vaccine shipments or sensitive supply chains, but he has not answered the challenge by some EU leaders to show that Britain is supplying vaccines outside its borders.
The senior official said the export control mechanism would still be discretionary with EU countries required to approve or prohibit export authorization requests and to then inform the Commission, which could potentially overrule the decision. Some officials had called for automatic bans on all shipments until the number of vaccines administered to EU residents increases to levels regarded as more acceptable.
In addition to the new rules on reciprocity and proportionality, a diplomat said there would also be provisions on “circumvention” — essentially a curtailing of exemptions for many developing countries as a way of closing loopholes by which rich countries could purchase doses through an intermediary.
EU heads of state and government are due to discuss the problems with the rollout of vaccines at a virtual summit on Thursday and Friday.
So far, the Commission has blocked just one shipment — of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — that had been destined for Australia from Italy. Merely blocking exports does not necessarily increase the number of doses available for EU citizens. Seizing doses for its own needs would require the EU to trigger other emergency authority and could lead to legal disputes.
“I am sure by now all of you know that AstraZeneca continue to underdeliver,” Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said at a news conference following a meeting Tuesday of EU European affairs ministers.
“Europe is one of the most open regions exporting COVID-19 vaccines but we see that there are many restrictions for the vaccines coming to Europe,” Šefčovič said. “Therefore we want reciprocity and proportionality. The importance of the export authorization mechanism is enabling us for the very first time to have full transparency about what is supposed to be exported in what amount and to what country.
“We are not seeking an outright ban on vaccines export but we expect manufacturers to live up to their contractual obligations,” he said. “At the same time we need to forge an effective and lasting path towards gradual reopening and recovery.”
Šefčovič noted that from the end of January until March 16, the EU had approved exports totaling 41.5 million doses to some 33 countries, compared to 70 million doses delivered within the EU, of which 52 million have been administered.
“I think you see that we have been extremely open — very, very generous and very forthcoming to all of our partners,” he said.
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.
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