EU caves: Brussels backs down on vaccine export ban after Boris issues threat

EU vaccine campaign is a ‘disaster’ says Ernest Urtasun

Downing Street faced down the threat with a promise to help get the bloc’s shambolic immunisation programme back on track. No10 turned on the diplomatic charm amid concerns our highly successful scheme was in the crosshairs of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. Top foreign office envoy Sir Tim Barrow was dispatched to Brussels to steer her away from sparking a full-blown trade war with the UK.

A senior European source told “We’re just starting to negotiate.”

The talks will focus on shoring up the vital cross-Channel supply chains to keep the vaccine taps turned on for both the EU and UK.

In a joint statement with Brussels, the Government said:“We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important.

“We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on COVID-19.”

“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.”

“In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.”

“We will continue our discussions”

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson convinces EU to drop draconian vaccines export ban for now (Image: GETTY)

The Commission vice-president suggested Brussels could retaliate by snatching doses of the Pfizer vaccine, made in Belgium, heading to our shores.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move would force pharmaceutical giants to reconsider doing business on the Continent.

He told the Commons Liaison Committee: “Companies may look at such actions… and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where they have arbitrary blockades.”

EU states, including Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands are reluctant to use the powers over fears of sparking a vaccines war.

One senior diplomat said: “Having the stick should be enough. We don’t want to use the stick because this will lead to a lose-lose situation.

“Things should not go sour. That’s the worst thing that could occur. Let’s get back to what we’re all looking for, which is vaccinating our people.”

Dutch PM Mark Rutte personally intervened to cool tensions after talks with Boris Johnson last Friday on a possible compromise.

In a series of follow-up calls to chief eurocrat Ursula von der Leyen he stressed the risk a vaccine war would pose to supply chains.

Brussels is under pressure from hardline EU nations to stop all shipments of the Oxford vaccine from leaving the bloc.

Its new export ban will allow eurocrats to target countries, as well as businesses, that it believes are not treating the EU “fairly”.

Mr Dombrovskis said: “The EU still faces a very serious epidemiological situation and continues to export significantly to countries whose situation is less serious than ours, or whose vaccination is more advanced than ours.”

He added: “Some 10 million doses have been exported from the EU to the UK, and zero doses have been exported from the UK to EU.

“If we discuss reciprocity, solidarity and global responsibility, it’s clear we need to look at those aspects.”

The eurocrat said exports of Pfizer jabs to the UK would be reviewed on a “case by case basis”.

Downing Street has called on Brussels to end its blockade on medical supplies and said it was willing to help the EU get its vaccination scheme back on track.

And No10 insisted the bloc’s ultimatum would not impact the immunisation drive at home.

Responding to the threats, a Government spokesman said: “We are all fighting the same pandemic – vaccines are an international operation, they are produced by collaboration by great scientists around the world. And we will continue to work with our European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout.

“We remain confident in our supplies and are on track to offer first doses to all over 50s by April 15 and all adults by the end of July.

“Our plan to cautiously reopen society via our roadmap also remains unchanged.”

Under its powers, Brussels must sign off on any requests by European vaccine producers wanting to ship their doses abroad.

Officials will review whether their destination has a “higher vaccination rate than the Union or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious than the Union”.

“Exports to those countries may thus threaten the security of supply within the Union,” the regulation states.

The new law gives EU chiefs specific powers to target “countries which have a large production capacity of their own” but “restrict their own exports to the Union”.

Brussels believes that Downing Street is using its contract with AstraZeneca as a “de facto export ban” because it gives us first refusal over doses made domestically.

Eurocrats complain: “This imbalance leads to shortages of supply within the Union.”

In a specific reference to the UK, the bulked-up powers allow eurocrats to decide if a country is refusing to export either “by law or through contractual or other arrangements concluded with vaccine manufacturers”.

Angry insiders have accused the Anglo-Swedish drugs giant of using European factories to fulfil its contract with the UK.

And European sources say the scope of the export ban was expanded to give eurocrats more opportunity to target shipments to our shores.

European governments are expected to overwhelmingly support the export ban tomorrow at a virtual leaders’ summit.

An EU official said: “What we put on the table is something very defendable. The question is how to ensure the fairness.

“If you don’t have cases in a given country, why do you need a lot of vaccines now?

“If you have a high vaccination rate why do you need vaccines going there while in other places in the EU there is a lack?”

Brussels has had export ban powers in place since late January, but until now it could only target companies failing to fulfil their contracts with the bloc.

The insider added: “The UK has a prioritisation in place, that means there are no doses coming to Europe form the UK right now.

“If you look at the global picture, you see that de-facto export bans are in place.”

Until now, Brussels has only blocked one shipment – 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia – out of 380 export requests.

EU officials insist the new measures shouldn’t be described as an export ban.

But Government lawyers have reviewed the legislation and insist the mechanism is an outright blockade on vaccines.

And Tory Brexiteers lashed out at eurocrats for acting like a tinpot dictatorship by threatening to blockade jabs Covid heading for Britain. 

Ex-Brexit minister David Jones told “Why don’t they just admit it is an export ban on vaccines to the UK.

“I think that they really are being very silly. But the fact is, this is an important international bloc and if they are going to impound vaccines belonging to other countries, which is what they’re doing, it’ll get them a bad international reputation.

“It won’t just be the UK that will become wary of dealing with the EU but other countries around the world – I think it’s extremely unwise of them.”

Lord Hannan said: “Like most British people, I want European countries to recover as quickly as possible. We want to have prosperous neighbours. We want to be able to travel to their countries. And we wish them well as friends. 

“The trouble is that, by repeatedly threatening Britain and proposing forms of expropriation and confiscation that would disgrace a Chavista dictatorship, the EU is making it very hard for any British government to offer help.” 

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Brussels was ruining any hope of a positive post-Brexit relationship with London.

He said: “Step by step the EU is destroying the possibility of a long-term partnership and friendship with its closest neighbour… it is idiotic in the extreme.”

Senior Conservative backbencher Peter Bone said: “It’s almost beyond belief what the EU is suggesting. Restricting vaccine exports to countries that are deemed successful is clearly an attack on the United Kingdom.

“It does appear deliberate intimidation of the United Kingdom. The fact is, we’re leading Europe on vaccinations and the EU has made a pig’s ear of it.”

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