EU Descends Into Civil War Over COVID-19 Vaccines

The EU descended into bitter squabbling over vaccines today as it held a crunch summit - after Emmanuel Macron delivered a humiliating mea culpa over bungling.

Austria accused other member states of taking more than their fair share of jabs, warning that failure to resolve their grievances risked 'damage to the EU like we haven't seen in a long time'.

The bruising intervention by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz came as leaders held a 'virtual' gathering amid panicky threats from the commission to ban vaccine exports, with new rules targeted at Britain. 

France and Germany are backing tough action as they face massive pressure over dire rollouts, but Ireland and many other member states are alarmed at the idea of undermining legal contracts.

Former commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker waded into the spat this morning, branding the idea of a 'vaccine war' stupid and raising fears it will cause 'major reputational damage' to the bloc.  

The EU and UK issued a joint statement pledging to work together last night, after Boris Johnson warned that businesses could flee the bloc's borders if it imposed 'arbitrary' blockades.

And Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivered another blunt rebuke today, insisting that the UK's contract with AstraZeneca was fundamentally better than the EU's.

'I believe that free trading nations follow the law of contracts,' he told the FT. 'They have a ''best efforts'' contract and we have an exclusivity deal.' 

On a visit to a nursery today, Boris Johnson said he was 'on the side of openness' in trade in vaccines.

He said: 'One thing I am firmly libertarian about is free trade and I don't want to see blockades of vaccines or of medicines, I don't think that's the way forward either for us or for any of our friends.' 

Ahead of the talks, Mr Kurz took aim at the EU's joint procurement system, which is meant to split up supplies based on the size of population.

'The word solidarity is always being called upon and used so often in the European Union - people are trying to take care of the whole world,' Mr Kurz said. 

'And when member states have a lot less vaccines available to them than others, then I think this is a big issue for Europe. I would even go so far as to say that I think that when there is no solution, this could cause damage to the European Union like we haven't seen in a long time.'

Earlier, the French president admitted that the bloc had not gone 'fast enough or strong enough' on on vaccines.

But Mr Macron seemingly could not bring himself to acknowledge the UK's stunning progress, instead heaping praise on the US for 'shooting for the stars'. 

Speaking to the Bundestag this morning, Angela Merkel appeared to accept that the EU's contracts were not as strong as the UK's. 

'British production sites are manufacturing for Britain and the United States is not exporting, so we are reliant on what we can make in Europe,' she said.

Insisting production within the bloc must be ramped up, she added: 'We have to assume that the virus, with its mutations, may be occupying us for a long time to come so the question goes far beyond this year.'

However, she also tried to defend the EU's decision to procure vaccines jointly - something that has been blamed for making it less nimble than the UK.   

Angela Merkel is 'definitively a lame duck' after she was forced to make a humiliating U-turn by scrapping plans for a strict Easter lockdown, a former German government spokesman has said.

Bela Anda, a press secretary under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, said Merkel had seen her power 'eroded' by the fiasco - with her party's poll ratings in freefall six months before an election which will determine her successor.

Merkel asked the German public for 'forgiveness' at an astonishing press conference on Wednesday where she said the widely-criticised plan for a total shutdown over Easter had been 'my mistake, and my mistake alone'.

'The political world in Berlin will draw the conclusion that from today, Angela Merkel is definitively - I'm sorry to say it - a lame duck,' Anda told Bild last night.

'It's certainly clear that a decision which is made and then not implemented means an erosion of power for Merkel from today onwards'.  

The Europeans are angry that UK-based pharma giant AstraZeneca has failed to meet its vaccine delivery promises to them while ensuring smoother supplies to former member Britain, who ordered their doses months earlier.

It has emerged that Brussels bureaucrats even ordered a raid on an Italian vaccine factory in a bid to grab British jabs – only to find doses destined for the world's poorest nations and the people of Europe.  

The looming third wave of coronavirus infections and Europe's struggle to mount a vaccination drive will dominate the video summit, where leaders of the 27 states will also be addressed by US President Joe Biden. 

The bloc stepped back from the brink of a vaccine war with Britain last night following a furious backlash by member states.

In an apparent climbdown, the European Commission agreed a joint statement with the UK offering to work to find a 'win-win' solution to the row.

The statement came at the end of a day of brinkmanship in which Brussels tabled proposals allowing it to block the export of vaccines to the UK.

Mr Johnson warned that blockading life-saving vaccine supplies would do lasting reputational damage to the EU and deter international firms from wanting to invest there.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the proposed export ban 'idiotic' and warned it could wreck the EU's relations with Britain for years.

'Step by step the EU is destroying the possibility of a long-term partnership and friendship with its closest neighbour,' he said.

Other Tory MPs branded the threats 'mind-blowingly stupid'. 

Even senior MEPs warned that the EU had pulled out the 'shotgun' but was at risk of 'shooting ourselves in the foot'. 

In an interview with Greek television channel ERT, Mr Macron conceded that the EU had lacked ambition.

'Everybody, all the experts said: Never in the history of mankind was a vaccine developed in less than a year,' he said.

'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.'

However, Mr Macron - who has been one of the most hawkish EU leaders against the UK over Brexit - could not bring himself to make a cross-Channel comparison. 

Instead he hailed the American effort to develop vaccines. 

'We didn't think it would happen that quickly... You can give that to the Americans, as early as the summer of 2020 they said: let's pull out all the stops and do it,' he said.

'As far as we're concerned, we didn't go fast enough, strong enough on this. We thought the vaccines would take time to take off.' 

Mrs Merkel told the Bundestag this morning: 'Despite all the complaints, it was right to rely on the joint procurement and approval of vaccines by the European Union.

'Now that we see 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. That would shake the internal market to its core.'

Mr Juncker told the BBC: 'I'm not a fan of this idea. 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.'

The former commission chief lashed out at the EU for 'major mistakes' in being 'too cautious' and 'too budget conscious' when approving and procuring vaccines.

The UK-EU joint statement last night acknowledged the third wave of cases in Europe made co-operation more important but said no resolution had yet been reached.

'Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short, medium and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens,' it said. 'In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.'

However, ministers are concerned that the commission powers are still in place, and there is not expected to be any formal decision from EU leaders today.

Mr Johnson has refused categorically to rule out retaliatory action – which could see the UK suspend the export of vaccine ingredients – although he made clear he was not in favour of the move at this stage.

Negotiations are thought to centre on an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands.

One Whitehall source said: 'They have armed themselves with a bazooka and pointed it at us – it is quite incendiary, not to mention morally and legally outrageous.'

France and Germany have backed a hardline stance as they try to deflect attention from their own sluggish vaccination campaigns. 

A source close to Mr Macron warned that the EU would no longer continue to be 'the useful idiot' in allowing jabs to be shipped overseas while the bloc struggles for supplies.

But the prospect of a damaging ban has alarmed a string of other EU countries. Ireland has declared the idea a 'very retrograde step', while Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Sweden are also said to harbour concerns.

Yesterday began with an extraordinary raid by Italian authorities on an AstraZeneca plant wrongly suspected of preparing to export millions of doses to Britain. In fact, the 29million jabs were destined for other EU countries and parts of the Third World.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen then published 'temporary' powers allowing the EU to block the export of jabs to countries such as the UK which have higher vaccination rates.

The plan could threaten millions of doses of the AZ vaccine due to be shipped from the Netherlands. But it could also cut off the UK's entire supply of the Pfizer jab, which comes from Belgium. Such a move could jeopardise the ability of the NHS to administer second doses of the vaccine.

A further threat to the UK rollout emerged last night as India was reported to have blocked all major exports of the AZ vaccine because infections there are soaring.

Two weeks after five million doses for the UK were stopped, sources said Narendra Modi's government has now implemented a complete ban on exports by the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine manufacturer.

The move will also affect supplies to the Covax vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 poorer countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said. Covax would also be hit by any EU ban. Its co-chairman Jane Halton said any threats from Brussels to hold vaccine exports hostage would be 'extremely regrettable'.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides denied the plans amounted to an export ban, adding: 'We're dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries.'

One EU diplomat said Britain had 'taken a risk' by leaving itself 'extremely dependent' on the EU for second doses of the Pfizer jab. 

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