'Crisis of century': EU threatens ban on coronavirus vaccine exports to UK

WION Web Team
Brussels, BelgiumUpdated: Mar 18, 2021, 06:40 PM IST

Vials labelled "Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed EU flag Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen gave her warning as Brussels unveiled its plan for a vaccine travel certificate, part of its effort to free up travel despite an emerging third wave of the pandemic

The European Union (EU) threatened to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure "reciprocity" with other suppliers, urging Britain to send Europe more jabs.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen gave her warning as Brussels unveiled its plan for a vaccine travel certificate, part of its effort to free up travel despite an emerging third wave of the pandemic.

"All options are on the table," the former German defence minister said, warning that the vaccine situation would be addressed among EU leaders at talks next week.

"We are in the crisis of the century, and I'm not ruling out any anything for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible," she said and briefly alluded to emergency powers last used during the OPEC oil shock of the 1970s.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab hit back, accusing the Commission of brinkmanship and calling for an explanation after the government had received assurances that the EU did not intend to curb exports that are under contract.

"I think it takes some explaining because the world's watching... It also cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the Commission," Raab said. "We expect those assurances and legal, contracted supply to be respected."

"Frankly, I'm surprised we're having this conversation. It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject, when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship."

Europe's vaccination campaign has struggled to get off the ground due to delayed deliveries, as well as a bitter row with pharma giant AstraZeneca and fears over the safety of its vaccine.

The EU has already set up special oversight of vaccine exports in which manufacturers contracted to supply Europe must declare if they intend to export doses outside the bloc.

Most of the EU's worry is over Britain, home of the AstraZeneca vaccine, where the inoculation campaign has progressed at a much faster pace than in the EU.

Brussels has accused London of operating a de facto export ban to achieve its vaccine success, a claim furiously denied by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government.

Digital vaccine certificates

Von der Leyen spoke as six EU countries complained to Brussels about reduced deliveries that are hampering the bloc's already troubled inoculation campaign struggling amid reduced deliveries by AstraZeneca.

Further complicating matters, various EU nations including its largest members Germany, France and Italy this week halted AstraZeneca shots pending safety checks.

The EU's announced travel certificate, meanwhile, is intended to help restore freedom of movement within the bloc for citizens inoculated against the coronavirus.

The certificate will show "whether the person has either been vaccinated, or has a recent negative test, or has recovered from Covid, and thus has antibodies," von der Leyen said.

The idea is to allow inoculated tourists to get around restrictions on non-essential travel that have spread across Europe, as a second and third wave of Covid-19 infections brought much intra-EU travel to a standstill.

"With this digital certificate we aim to help member states reinstate the freedom of movement in a safe, responsible and trusted manner."

The plan, however, will face stiff resistance from many member states, a key concern being that those still awaiting vaccinations would be discriminated against.

In addition, some member states are worried that the legal path to create the pass, which would include approval by European Parliament, will take too long, with the summer holidays just three months away.

The commission is adamant that the process can be fast-tracked and is working to have it ready by June.

The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry group, urged member states to approve the certificate "very soon".

"We should see something similar all around the world if it can help reopening air travel everywhere," said IATA head Alexandre de Juniac.