Brussels received widespread condemnation after triggering an emergency clause in the Brexit deal which would slow down the exportation of vaccine supplies to Northern Ireland. Although the bloc backed down within hours and reversed its decision, those in both Northern Ireland and its EU neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, were horrified by the move. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said the bloc had committed a “hostile and aggressive act”, while the Republic’s Government spokesperson said the Taoiseach was in discussions with the European Commission “to express our concerns” shortly after the news was announced.
The drastic move came after the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine announced it would not be able to meet the quota for the jabs the EU had ordered for at least the first three months of the year.
In frustration, some within the EU demanded the UK share some of its vaccine supplies, even though Britain signed a contract with the pharmaceutical giant three months before the bloc.
Despite the furore, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has offered to help the EU with its vaccine production and said the bloc has recognised that it made a mistake in triggering Article 16.
But, the discontent with the EU over this move is the latest in the ongoing saga over the bloc’s tactics.
Divisions over its vaccine strategy have been undermining Brussels’ unity for months.
The EU has been trailing nations from around the world, despite introducing Emergency Support Instrument which allows the EU Commission to purchase on behalf of EU member states in June — it also has up to €2.7billion (£2.48billion) to spend on vaccines.
Journalist Jillian Deutsch explained that “frustration over past issues with joint procurement” prompted four EU countries — Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy — to set up the ‘Inclusive Vaccine Alliance’.
Writing in POLITICO, she explained: “This initiative will negotiate the prices of coronavirus vaccines so that, once approved, they can be made affordable to all Europeans, with a priority for those manufactured in Europe.”
However, there was confusion over how this new alliance would work alongside the Commission.
Just one day after the Commission was granted permission to buy vaccines on the behalf of member states last June, the Alliance announced it had signed up to a deal with AstraZeneca.
The drug company had promised between 300 and 400 million doses of a vaccine.
At the time, Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block emphasised that this was “unreasonable” to negotiate outside of the bloc.
She said: “By doing this you are weakening everyone: both the Commission’s overall initiative and your own position.”
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The Commission was also said to be furious about the dilemma behind closed doors.
A diplomat said: “There was a certain expression, mostly hidden in diplomatic terms… that the EU procurement experience, especially in masks and ventilators, has not been very successful.”
But, another diplomat from one of the four nations of the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance said: “There was an opportunity now to close this deal.
“In a moment where speed is of the essence, the four had to act fast.”
Other nations were also planning on joining the Alliance, but it was not clear how — or even if — the Commission was going to cooperate with the new initiative.
Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told POLITICO that the two approaches are “not incompatible”, as long as “everyone is covered” by a vaccine, obscuring any claims of internal fractures in the bloc.
However, she added: “Clearly what we cannot do is pay twice for the same vaccine.”
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The EU later insisted that the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance could not formalise the deal and suggested taking over the contract negotiations.
As a result, the contract with AstraZeneca was not signed until the end of August.
ITV’s Robert Peston pointed out: “What is frustrating for AstraZeneca is that the extra talks with the European Commission led to no material changes to the contract, but wasted time on making arrangements to make the vaccine with partner sites.
“The yield at these partner sites has been lower than expects.”
Mr Peston claimed that while AstraZeneca does not blame the EU, it was frustrated that it was being portrayed as the obstacle in negotiations.
If the deal had been completed in June back when the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance first arranged a deal, then the rollout issues would have been resolved by now.
A pro-EU source at the pharmaceutical giant even said, “I understand Brexit better now”.
AstraZeneca announced that the EU would be receiving just 30 million doses instead of the 80 million initially ordered for the first three months of 2021 due to alleged delays at a Belgian plant.