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The European Commission is proposing controversial new rules that would let the EU slash vaccine exports for six weeks to places like the U.K. and U.S. — countries that are either receiving EU-made vaccines but not sending other shots back, or that have vaccinated more of their population than the EU.
The drastic proposal is set to be unveiled Wednesday, ahead of a virtual summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday. It comes amid mounting frustration in the EU about the bloc’s sluggish vaccine rollout, as well as vaccine delivery delays from pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
However, the draft legislation — obtained by POLITICO — presents huge risks for the EU’s reputation as a free-trade proponent and champion of sharing vaccine doses worldwide. EU countries still need to approve the rules before they take effect, though.
Since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen first floated the possibility of blocking vaccine exports, she has faced criticism from some EU diplomats and MEPs, who blasted the idea as “ill-conceived” and warned it could ignite a trade war. And the threat has already sparked considerable anger in Britain, which likely stands to lose the most if the EU follows through.
The draft legislation directs EU countries to consider several factors when deciding whether to block vaccine exports, including what vaccine-related products the recipient is sending to the EU and whether exporting those doses would hamper the company’s ability to fulfill its contract with the EU.
“Export authorizations are to be refused by the Member States where the exports concerned pose a threat to the execution of the Advanced Purchase Agreements (APAs) between the Union and vaccine manufacturers in view of their volume or other relevant circumstances, such as the volume of vaccines delivered to the Union at the time of the request,” the draft text reads.
It says that EU countries should only allow vaccine exports that “do not otherwise pose a threat to the security of supply” of vaccines in the bloc.
While legislation tells EU countries to consider these details when deciding whether to propose an export ban, it’s up to the Commission whether to impose the ban.
“Ultimately, the decisions will remain discretionary,” said a senior EU official.
Under the draft rules, a key criterion for blocking vaccine exports is “whether the country of destination of the export restricts its own exports [of vaccines to the EU] … or of the raw materials from which they are made, either by law or by any other means.”
The clause seems to specifically target the United Kingdom. The EU argues that while the country doesn’t have an official vaccine export ban, it has a de facto ban through arrangements with AstraZeneca that require the company to supply British markets first. The United States, meanwhile, has a more direct legal framework in place that prevents the exports of certain vaccines to the EU. The U.S., however, does supply Europe with vaccine components.
Controversially, the Commission’s draft legislation says the EU may also block exports to countries that do not produce vaccines themselves, “but which have a higher vaccination rate than the Union or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious than in the Union.”
“Member states should refuse export authorizations accordingly,” the text reads, adding that “this regulation should enter into force immediately … [and] apply for six weeks.”
The proposal arrives just as the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported on Wednesday that authorities had discovered 29 million doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine stockpiled at a manufacturing site in the country. According to the newspaper, the doses likely come from AstraZeneca’s Halix plant in the Netherlands, which hasn’t yet been approved for EU production.
Belgian MEP Kathleen van Brempt, the trade coordinator for the Socialist & Democrats group, called on EU leaders not to accept the Commission proposal.
“The EU sources 70 percent of its vaccine ingredients from other vaccine-producing countries,” van Brempt said. “Pfizer/BioNTech depends on U.K. supplies to be able to manufacture in the EU. Have we really thought this trade war through?”
An EU diplomat called the draft regulation “ill-conceived” and “pugnacious” and said it would not solve the immediate problem by providing a quick increase in doses available for EU citizens and residents.
A non-EU diplomat whose country could be affected by the new rules said that while the proposal was worrying, the real problem was still the refusal of the U.S. and U.K. — two of the wealthiest dose-manufacturing nations — to supply other countries worldwide with vaccines.
“We really need the U.K. and the U.S. at the table,” the diplomat said.
Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.
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