EU Urges U.K. to Come Clean on Vaccine Exports in Heated Dispute
(Bloomberg) -- The EU urged the U.K. to come clean about its exports of vaccines, amid an increasingly terse dispute where the bloc accused Britain of having an export ban.
“It’s important we know what’s happening in the supply chain,” said Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU’s ambassador to the U.K., speaking on ITV’s “Peston” program Wednesday evening. “This exchange has put that on the table,” de Almeida said, referring to European Council President Charles Michel’s earlier claim that the U.K. isn’t sending any vaccines overseas.
Michel’s comments sparked a stern rebuke from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said Britain has not blocked any vaccine exports and he “opposes vaccine nationalism in all its forms.” The growing war of words also saw the British government accuse EU politicians of damaging its immunization program and summon a senior diplomat from the bloc for a dressing down.
The spat risks souring relations between the EU and its former member state, who are embroiled in a wider dispute over Brexit trade rules that could end up in legal action. Vaccines have become a flashpoint as the bloc comes under fire for the slow roll-out of its own vaccination program: about a third of the U.K. population has received a dose, compared with 6% in the EU, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The U.K. has been the largest recipient of vaccine exports from the EU, receiving 9.1 million doses as of March 9, according to a document seen by Bloomberg. The U.K. hasn’t said whether any doses have gone the other way.
In a newsletter published Tuesday -- less than a week after EU member state Italy blocked a shipment of AstraZeneca Plc coronavirus shots to Australia -- Michel said he was “shocked” by accusations of “vaccine nationalism” against the EU.
“The facts do not lie,” he wrote. “The U.K. and the U.S. have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.”
When asked by reporters in Brussels, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer refused to comment directly on Michel’s remarks.
“We know that different countries have got different measures in place -- this doesn’t concern vaccines, as far as we understand, coming from the U.K.,” he said. “But we know as well that we, the EU, are a very, very active exporter of vaccines, and this is not necessarily the case of all our partners.”
On Wednesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accused senior EU politicians of damaging its vaccination program by making “misleading” statements that cast doubt on the AstraZeneca shot.
In a round of broadcast interviews, he said fewer British people had taken up the offer of shots in the U.K. after EU figures questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a clear reference to remarks from French President Emmanuel Macron, among others.
“Unfortunately, there’s been a number of different statements made out of Europe, including misleading information on the effectiveness of some of these vaccines, which eventually have been unwound, but not until they’ve done damage to the number of people, the uptake on some of the vaccines, which I think is all very unfortunate,” Shapps told Times Radio.
“We just need to get on and vaccinate people,” Shapps said. “We want the rest of the world to vaccinate as well.”
At the end of January, Macron raised doubts about the Astra vaccine’s benefits for the elderly, saying it was “almost ineffective” for those 65 and older. France subsequently endorsed the AstraZeneca vaccine for elderly people.
Michel appeared to row back on his initial comments within hours, writing on Twitter that he was “glad if the U.K. reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports.”
Even so, the row marks an escalation in tensions between the two sides since Britain completed its departure from the bloc in December.
Johnson is facing a legal challenge from the bloc after unilaterally announcing he will not introduce export documents on food crossing the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland from April 1, as previously agreed.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic outlined details of the action to EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. Measures could include imposing penalties on the U.K. that include trade tariffs, an EU official said.
“We will have to take legal action,” de Almeida said on “Peston.” “I hope we can forget the battles of the past and trying to score points on all disputes.”
In January, the EU briefly threatened to control the flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland -- and thus the U.K. -- by using an emergency clause in the Brexit agreement. In doing so, the bloc reopened one of the most sensitive disputes in the entire divorce: how to avoid the return of full customs checks on the island of Ireland.
Despite the tensions around vaccines and Northern Ireland, the EU remains “absolutely committed” to ratifying and enforcing the Brexit trade deal it signed with the U.K., de Almeida said.
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