Vaccine failures cast shadow over EU summit as COVID-19 surges

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders meet on Thursday to discuss a coordinated path out of the COVID-19 pandemic as infections surge again in many of their countries, seeking agreement on how to ramp up supplies of vaccines after a feeble start to inoculation.

European Council President Charles Michel attends a video conference on security and defence and on the EU’s Southern Neighborhood with European leaders and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (not pictured) in Brussels, Belgium February 26, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool

Ahead of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron spelt out the frustration over vaccine rollouts that are far behind those of Britain and the United States, acknowledging that European leaders had been too timid.

“We didn’t shoot for the stars. That should be a lesson for all of us. We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness, I would say, to say: It’s possible, let’s do it,” he told Greek television channel ERT.

As of March 23, Britain had administered nearly 46 vaccines for every 100 people, whereas the 27-nation bloc it left last year had administered 13.8 shots per 100 people, according to public data compiled by Our World In Data website.

Europe’s painfully slow rollout has led to a quarrel with Britain, which has imported at least 11 million doses made in the EU. Britain says it did a better job negotiating with manufacturers and arranging supply chains. The EU says it should share more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure at home after making a U-turn on plans for an extended Easter holiday to break a third wave of COVID-19, defended the EU’s decision to procure vaccines jointly for all member states.

“Now that we see that even small differences in the distribution of vaccines cause big discussions, I would not like to imagine if some member states had vaccines and others did not,” she told German lawmakers ahead of the summit. “That would shake the internal market to its core.”

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Several countries have complained that vaccines are not being distributed evenly across the bloc.

TENSIONS WITH UK

The EU’s executive unveiled plans on Wednesday to tighten oversight of vaccine exports that would allow greater scope to block shipments to countries with higher inoculation rates.

Despite that, Brussels and London sought to cool their tensions on Wednesday, declaring in a joint statement that they were “working on specific steps we can take … to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens”.

The EU is not united on the European Commission’s proposals on vaccine exports, and several countries – including Belgium the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark – have reservations.

“If we need to have this because one supplier is not delivering then I hope this is a stick which does not have to be used because it might turn out to be a lose-lose,” said one EU diplomat. “If we hamper supply chains, the risk is that we will all be left without the vaccines we desperately need.”

Although the Commission’s plan will be discussed at the summit, which gets underway by video-conference at 1200 GMT, it is not likely to be explicitly endorsed by the leaders.

A draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters said on vaccines that leaders would stress “the importance of … export authorisations”, and reaffirm that vaccine producers must be respect contractual delivery deadlines.

However, diplomats said countries with misgivings about a tougher stand on exports would not put up strong resistance.

“Their message is … please act very cautiously, in a very balanced way,” said one EU diplomat. “But there is nobody who says don’t do it.”

U.S. President Joe Biden will join the leaders briefly at around 1945 GMT, which EU officials said would be an opportunity to discuss the pandemic but also the warming of transatlantic relations, which soured under former President Donald Trump.

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