Charles Michel at centre of war of words with UK over COVID vaccines

Row follows Council President’s swipe at the UK over its vaccine roll out.
European Council Newsroom

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

12 Mar 2021

President of the European Council, Charles Michel has found himself at the centre of a furious war of words with the UK over the respective vaccine strategies of the two sides.

It comes after he tried to defend the EU’s much-criticised vaccine strategy earlier this week and, in doing so, also took a swipe at the UK over its approach to the vaccine roll out.

Michel, a former Prime Minister of Belgium, which currently has one of the worst roll out rates in Europe, seemed to directly attack the UK for what he described as an “outright ban on the export of vaccines” comparing it to the EU which, he said, had “never stopped exporting.”

But his comments were immediately condemned by UK foreign minister Dominic Raab who branded Michel’s export ban claim as “totally false.”

Michel’s comments, which he has refused to retract, led to a senior EU official in London being summoned to the UK Foreign Office to explain them.

UK premier Boris Johnson also “corrected” Michel on his comments.

"I am shocked when I hear the accusations of 'vaccine nationalism' against the EU. Here again, the facts do not lie. The UK and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory. But the European Union never stopped exporting” President of the European Council, Charles Michel

The spat comes amid the backdrop of what is seen as a painfully slow roll out of vaccines in the whole of the EU, particularly compared with the UK where over 30 percent of the population has had a first vaccine dose.

A comparison has been made with Belgium, for example, where only just over five percent have been vaccinated. The situation, while not as bad as Belgium, is similar in other parts of the EU.

In the US the share of people with at least one dose is 18 percent while in Israel it is 58 percent.

The European Commission, sought to downplay widespread criticism of EU Member States’ vaccine performance by announcing on Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with BioNTech-Pfizer for the supply of four million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

But this has done little to ease tensions after Michel accused the UK of effectively blocking vaccine exports, saying in a written statement, "I am shocked when I hear the accusations of 'vaccine nationalism' against the EU.”

"Here again, the facts do not lie. The UK and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory. But the European Union never stopped exporting.”

He admitted, “The difficulties in launching this massive operation have caused frustration and even anger among European citizens. I understand that. Citizens have voiced strong criticism of their national authorities and of the EU over the delays in producing, distributing and administering the vaccines.”

“There will certainly be lessons to be learned not least on the performance of contracts signed with pharmaceutical companies.”

He conceded that the current difficulties, were “irritating”, but he also said that “facts show that Europe is not lagging behind.”

He said the roll out was “not a sprint” and the EU was “well placed to lead the field in a marathon.”

In the same statement, Michel said the EU, “the region with the largest vaccine production capacity in the world, has simply put in place a system for controlling the export of doses produced in the EU.”

He also pointed out that “Most of the doses with which Israel embarked on its mass vaccination programme were sent from Belgium.”

“Along with the US, we will undoubtedly be the largest producer of vaccines for the world.”

The EU, he said, had “pre-ordered over two billion doses, more than double what is needed to vaccinate its population.”

"The UK government has not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false” UK foreign minister Dominic Raab

“From the start, Europe has been the most fervent advocate of an international response and of the principle that the vaccines must be universally accessible and affordable.”

In response to the comments about an alleged export ban, UK foreign minister Dominic Raab reportedly wrote to Michel "to set the record straight” and said, "The UK government has not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”

As of Monday, just 618,000 people in Belgium - or 5.4 percent of the population - had received their first dose. In the UK, the figure is 22m, covering some 33 percent of the population.

On Wednesday, meantime, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announced that it had secured another four million extra doses, saying this is to “tackle aggressive variants of the virus and to improve the situation in hotspots.”

These will arrive, she said, before the end of March and “will help Member States in their efforts to keep the spread of new variants under control.”

She added, “Through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore free movement of goods and people.”

A BioNTech spokeswoman said the additional doses were a result of an “improvement in efficiency”, adding that volumes to be delivered in the second quarter remained unchanged.

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