Covid vaccine lag in 'diesel' Europe set to dominate EU virtual summit
Europe’s struggle to mount a speedy and efficient Covid vaccination drive is likely to dominate Thursday’s EU video summit, after President Macron admitted that “diesel” Europe, unlike the US, “didn’t reach for the stars”.
European Union leaders are struggling to speed up vaccinations, but are trailing countries like Britain and the United States and facing supply delays.
Europeans are angry that UK-based pharma giant AstraZeneca has failed to meet its vaccine delivery promises to the EU while ensuring smoother supplies to former member Britain.
But French President Emmanuel Macron admitted Europe carried some of the blame for the rollout failings.
“We didn’t shoot for the stars.That should be a lesson for all of us," he said in an interview with Greek television channel ERT on Wednesday. "We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness to say: It’s possible, let’s do it.”
Macron himself has been criticised at home for a faltering rollout, slowed by bureaucracy and public mistrust of vaccines. In his defence he said that France and other member states didn’t see that Covid-19 vacines would be developed within a year.
“Everybody, all the experts said: Never in the history of mankind was a vaccine developed in less than a year,” he said in the interview.
“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,” Macron said. "We didn’t go fast enough, strong enough on this."
US President Biden is the star attraction at this evening's summit. He will address the 27 EU leaders by video link, mending ties between Washington and Brussels after the dramatic diplomatic battles of the Donald Trump years.
But his intervention offers only brief respite from the main matter at hand: how to outpace the resurgent epidemic when drug deliveries came up short and vaccination campaigns began far more slowly than in the US?
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen's executive updated its month-old control mechanism on Wednesday, giving the bloc more power to block vaccine shipments to countries like Britain that produce jabs but do not export them.
- EU to tighten Covid-19 vaccine export approval to ensure doses for own citizens
- Boris Johnson seeks solution after EU threat to block vaccine exports to UK
The leaders will not be asked to vote on the measure, already provisionally applied, at Thursday's summit, and most would back it if it helps pressure AstraZeneca to boost its deliveries.
But some - like UK neighbour Ireland, and vaccine producers Belgium and the Netherlands - are wary of any move to block exports from operations like Pfizer/BioNTech, which supplies both the EU and UK.
If the pharmaceutical industry's global supply chains are disrupted, many countries could lose out, as both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government and von der Leyen's commission accepted.
"We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important," they said, in a joint statement released to calm nerves after the EU tightened its rules.
The cross-Channel rivals are in discussions about how "to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens" but have yet to come to agreement on how to share AstraZeneca doses.
The firm has delivered the EU only 19 million of the 30 million it had promised in the first quarter, and that pledge was itself a dramatic reduction from the 120 million it contracted for.
With some EU countries more reliant on the cheaper UK-designed vaccine than others, Brussels' focus has turned to a plant in the Netherlands which the UK had planned to use for its own supplies.
EU leaders will also be discussing diplomatic and economic relations with its strategic neighbour Turkey.
The bloc is working on incentives to encourage Ankara to continue improving often fraught ties with the EU and promote stability.
It follows a spike in tensions last year over Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Relations between Paris and Ankara are particularly strained. On Tuesday Macron suggested Turkey was plotting to meddle in upcoming French elections, claims Turkey described as "dangerous" and "alienating".
Host Charles Michel, the president of the leaders' European Council, had hoped the summit would be face-to-face, but was forced to accept a stripped down video conference as EU members reinstated lockdown measures.
Fearing leaks from a less than secure videoconference, the leaders do not expect to be able to make decisions on many sensitive topics, and talks initially planned for two days will instead end late Thursday.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe