European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said AstraZeneca must ‘honour’ its contract with the bloc before exporting Covid vaccines elsewhere – including Britain.
After arguing over their own dose allocations at a summit in Brussels last night, EU leaders stopped short of approving an explicit export ban.
But it was made clear that the threat of blockades would not be taken off the table as the continent tries to make up for its shakey vaccine rollout.
A policy was enacted tightening the criteria to authorise the export of EU made vaccines, with pharmaceutical companies’ requests being assessed on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.
Von der Leyen urged ‘transparency’ from other countries, but did not confirm if the bloc would later bring in tougher export restrictions.
She acknowledged that worldwide supply chains needed to remain ‘intact’ for vaccine production, while some European leaders appeared optimistic that the UK and EU could soon resolve their dispute over supplies.
Since January, the EU has been at odds with Astrazeneca, claiming British-Swedish firm failed to deliver on its contract after delivering less than originally expected.
The pharmaceutical giant said this was due to unexpected production problems, but Brussels suspected it was giving preferential treatment to Britain and even sent inspectors round to a Belgian facility to check if they were having issues.
The EU first introduced export controls for vaccines on January 29, which were used for the first time on March 4 when Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses to Australia.
At yesterday’s European Council meeting, Von der Leyen said she had ‘no knowledge’ of the UK exporting jabs, while 77million doses had been exported to 33 countries by the EU so far.
It came after the European Commission set out a tougher regime to stem supplies of jabs to nations faring better in the pandemic as the bloc’s states faced a third wave of cases.
‘I think it is clear that the company (AstraZeneca) has to catch up and honour the contract it has with the EU member states before it can engage again in exporting vaccines.
‘We have worldwide supply chains that have to be intact and it is of the utmost importance that we get back to an attitude of openness.’
Asked about how many vaccines the UK had exported, Von der Leyen said: ‘I have no knowledge so far of UK exports, perhaps I am mistaken and waiting for their transparency.’
Following the summit, Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo said that he believed the EU’s dispute with the UK over vaccine supplies ‘can be resolved’ as he referred to a phone call with Boris Johnson last week.
He told a Brussels press conference: ‘We think that the discussion we have with the United Kingdom can be resolved based on good agreements.’
Striking a similar tone, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ that divisions between the UK and the EU could be resolved.
He added: ‘I think that on Saturday or soon after, they could come to an agreement which would be very helpful because we are friends, the UK and the rest of Europe, and we need each other.’
But leaders appeared to be divided on the issue following the summit, with French president Emmanuel Macron insisting that the EU is ‘no longer naive’ with its export controls tool.
Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock pointed out that AstraZeneca has its own contractual obligations to the UK.
He told the Financial Times: ‘I believe that free trading nations follow the law of contract.
‘They have a “best efforts” contract and we have an exclusivity deal. Our contract trumps theirs. It’s called contract law — it’s very straightforward.’
Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he is ‘not a fan’ of plans to restrict vaccine exports.
He told the BBC: ‘This could create major reputational damage to the EU, who used to be the world free-trade champion.
‘I don’t think this is the right way to do it. We have to pull back from a vaccine war. Nobody understands why we’re witnessing such a stupid vaccine war.
‘This cannot be dealt with in a war atmosphere. We are not in war and we are not enemies we are allies. We have special relations with Britain — there’s room for dialogue.’
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