Four EU countries have rebelled against Brussels’ move to step up export restrictions on vaccines, in the clearest sign yet of the bloc’s internal tensions over the policy.
The group, which comprises the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Sweden, did not muster enough support to block the measures, which were announced by the European Commission last month. But the no-votes underlined fears in some EU capitals that the curbs are damaging the bloc’s reputation as a reliable player in the medical supply chain.
Germany endorsed Brussels’ plan, but submitted a paper making clear its misgivings about aspects of the curbs. The German paper, dated April 1 and seen by the Financial Times, stated that negative decisions on exports “should continue to be only a measure of last resort”. It added that Brussels’ decision to scrap previous exemptions for vaccines destined for the Western Balkans risked “lasting reputational damage for the EU”.
The reinforced export screening, championed by commission president Ursula von der Leyen, adds conditions that national governments should take into account when deciding whether or not to allow a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines to leave the EU. Notably, the updated rules tell governments to consider whether a destination country is showing enough “reciprocity” towards the EU.
Governments had until Wednesday night to submit objections to the measures, which have been provisionally in force since March 26.
In a joint statement submitted with their votes against the measures, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands said that the move “might inadvertently start a negative spiral of export restrictions that will hamper the necessary stepping up of global production and potentially also the EU’s own production and distribution”.
The opposition from Belgium and the Netherlands is notable given their status as major vaccine producers. The two countries host the two EU plants producing the raw substance for the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, while Pfizer produces its vaccine in Puurs, Belgium.
Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin has previously stressed the importance of keeping supply chains open, telling RTE in March: “You start putting up barriers, other countries might follow suit in terms of some of those vital raw materials that are required to make the vaccine.”
The diplomatic note from the German government is particularly critical of the commission’s decision to remove exemptions that had previously applied to Western Balkan countries and members of the European Free Trade Association, meaning exports to them are now vetted under the scheme.
Western Balkan countries such as Serbia have used Chinese and Russian vaccines in an effort to accelerate the inoculation of their populations.
The note warns that the EU step “risks undermining confidence in the EU among some of our closest partners and neighbours, and therefore comes with significant foreign policy implications and possibly lasting reputational damage for the EU”.
It called on the commission to rethink this part of the new export curbs. Berlin also noted that “an increased activity of third countries’ vaccine producers and a further extension of their geopolitical influence could follow”.