It came as surprise when the UK was accused by Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, of imposing ‘an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.’ Challenged by Dominic Raab in a letter of protest, Michel refused to disavow his remarks, shifting the ground by arguing that Britain hadn’t exported any vaccines itself. The argument has been taken a stage further by the New York Times, which on Wednesday ran the headline ‘E.U. Exports Millions of Covid Vaccine Doses Despite Supply Crunch at Home’.
These reports, however, are disingenuous in attempting to paint the EU as a suffering saint, nobly exporting jabs at the expense of its own citizens. (This image would certainly surprise the people of Canada, Australia and Northern Ireland…) Although production of vaccines for export is taking place in EU territory, that doesn’t make it ‘EU’ production when it comes to the funding, research and manufacture of the jabs, which is substantially the work of private firms.
Likewise, and contrary to EU insinuations, British and other non-EU firms are involved in Pfizer’s supply chain. Production is hardly as EU-centric as Europe’s cheerleaders would suggest. And contrary to claims of UK selfishness, AstraZeneca’s vaccine was developed with UK taxpayer funds, and is now being rolled out at manufacturing centers across the world – not, as with Pfizer, solely from a single central production center in Europe.
The export of vaccines from the EU’s territory is the result of the bloc’s incompetence and tardiness in signing procurement contracts in an open market, and to provide support for research and manufacture as the UK has done. Indeed, unprovable insinuations of a hidden ban are merely designed to distract from this fact – as well as Italy’s heavy-handed restriction of vaccine exports to Australia, and the EU’s internal splits over the distribution of jabs. Unbelievably, the Commission’s steering board on this issue is cloaked in secrecy. Quite unlike other EU institutions, of course…
What’s more, it has recently emerged that, had the pandemic occurred in 2022, Northern Ireland would have been under the EU’s acquis for the production and distribution of medicines. This could have slowed or potentially inhibited the vaccine rollout. Although vaccines are technically a member-state competence, they have to be approved by the European Medicines Authority, and their import is subject its oversight. Given the political storm which enveloped the bloc’s relations AstraZeneca, and the EU’s willingness to use the Protocol as a weapon in this case, it‘s perfectly conceivable that Brussels would limit or seek to confiscate medicines going to NI in the event of another flare-up in relations.
A final point to cover is the frankly irresponsible encouragement of vaccine scepticism in some EU circles, which seems deliberately targeted at AstraZeneca. This is a particularly dangerous political game of distraction given historic levels of vaccine scepticism in certain European countries, and verges on the dangerous denial of a healthcare emergency for political convenience in France.