The looming third wave of coronavirus infections and Europe’s fight to start vaccination will dominate Thursday’s EU video summit, despite a welcome guest appearance by Joe Biden.
The new US president will address the 27 EU leaders via video link in the evening when Washington and Brussels present a crew after the dramatic diplomatic battles during the Donald Trump years.
But his intervention will only be a short break from the main question: How can one overcome the bloating epidemic when drug deliveries became short and vaccination campaigns began slowly?
Host Charles Michel, President of the European Council, had hoped to hold a substantive face-to-face meeting, but was forced to accept a stripped-down video conference when EU members reintroduce lock-in measures.
Europeans are angry that UK-based drug giant AstraZeneca has failed to deliver on its promises of vaccine delivery to the EU while ensuring smoother deliveries to former UK members.
But they are also fighting with each other over how to share the vaccines they have received, and not everyone is happy with the European Commission’s threat to block certain vaccine exports.
EU President Ursula von der Leyen’s CEO updated his monthly control mechanism on Wednesday, giving the bloc more power to block vaccine shipments to countries such as the UK that produce jabs but do not export them.
Leaders will not be asked to vote on the measure, which has already been tentatively implemented, at Thursday’s summit, and most would support it if it helps pressure AstraZeneca to increase its deliveries.
But some – such as Britain’s neighbor Ireland, and vaccine manufacturers Belgium and the Netherlands – are wary of any measures to block exports from companies such as Pfizer / BioNTech, which supplies both the EU and the UK.
If the global supply chains of the pharmaceutical industry are disrupted, many countries could lose, as both the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and von der Leyen’s Commission agreed.
“We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave is making EU-UK cooperation even more important,” they said in a joint statement to calm nerves after the EU tightened its rules.
The rival cross-channels are discussing how to “create a win-win situation and increase vaccine supply for all our citizens” but have not yet agreed on how to divide AstraZeneca doses.
The company has delivered to the EU only 19 million of the 30 million it had promised during the first quarter – and that promise was in itself a dramatic reduction from the 120 million it contracted.
With some EU countries more dependent on the cheaper UK-designed vaccine than others, Brussels’ focus has turned to a facility in the Netherlands that the UK had planned to use for its own deliveries.
Johnson persists and insists that the UK contract with AstraZeneca must be respected, but he is worried that Brussels could use the tougher export mechanism to shield the UK from other EU-made vaccines.
A European diplomat told reporters that Britain and the Commission are negotiating how to better divide AstraZeneca’s doses, and that the EU must not just avoid the deficit.
Another sensitive issue is the distribution of vaccines that Europe has received under the Commission’s common purchasing strategy.
A group of smaller states, led by Austria, are demanding a revision of the distribution method after they came up short in the first quarter.
There is little sympathy in other capitals for their situation, but because decisions were made on a joint steering committee where Austria and others failed to take advantage of the opportunities to secure more parties.
Discussions are under way about a compromise, but some countries trusted AstraZeneca more heavily compared to more expensive – but ultimately more successful – suppliers.
And as one diplomat said: “Some countries just decided to buy fewer vaccines, it is a tactic that can not be blamed on the EU or other member states.”
Against this background, Biden’s appearance, albeit with a video from Washington, may prove to be a break. European officials have been very pleased with the warmer tone of the new US government.
Ahead of the summit, Biden’s top diplomat Antony Blinken ended a two-day visit to Brussels after talks with NATO ministers and top EU officials and promised close coordination.
But for fear of leakage from a less secure video conference, leaders do not expect to be able to make decisions on many sensitive topics, and talks that were originally scheduled for two days will end late on Thursday.