Senior MEPs criticise European Commission’s handling of EU vaccines rollout

However, it would be a mistake to dispute that the bloc would be better off not without a common EU strategy, argues Greens/EFA Group co-leader Philippe Lamberts.
European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

04 Feb 2021

Greens/EFA Group co-leader in the European Parliament Philippe Lamberts has admitted the EU has “made mistakes” in its Coronavirus vaccine strategy.

But, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the Belgian MEP also sought to defend the bloc’s overall vaccines purchasing strategy.

Lamberts said, “Two mistakes have been made. The first was the European Commission accepting the diktat of the pharmaceutical companies that insisted on ‘secrecy’ in signing contracts for vaccines with the EU.

“It is remarkable that citizens and others don’t have access to these contracts. This is a major problem. On this occasion, public interest trumps trade secrets so these contracts should be published.”

 He said, “The second mistake the Commission made was last week and the Ireland protocol issue.”

This is a reference to the EU’s vaccination export restriction regulation that sought to override sensitive rules in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement regarding the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.

He said, “This should never have happened and has led to an internal blame game within the Commission. But it should be noted that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen very quickly corrected things unlike UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he tried to overrule the Withdrawal Agreement last year.”

“People are taking shots at the Commission saying it took too long to negotiate contracts with the pharma companies. I am not sure that the Commission did this is a totally satisfactory manner but it is unfair to put the Commission under fire” Greens/EFA Group co-leader Philippe Lamberts

EU member states have so far collectively administered at least one dose to just three percent of the population, against 59 percent in Israel, 15 per cent in the UK and 10 percent in the US.

The EU’s best vaccination rates include Denmark, Ireland, Spain and Italy, all of which have delivered at least one dose to more than 3.5 percent of their populations. Underperformers include the Netherlands, Austria and France, on less than 2.5 percent.

Delays have also been compounded by the European drug regulator’s longer approval process.

However, Lamberts defended the general EU approach to the crisis, saying, “People are taking shots at the Commission saying it took too long to negotiate contracts with the pharma companies. I am not sure that the Commission did this is a totally satisfactory manner but it is unfair to put the Commission under fire.”

Speaking at a virtual briefing on the EU’s vaccines strategy, he accepted that some Member States had experienced “organisational problems” during the rollout but that “most pharma companies have also had difficulties in fulfilling their contractual obligations.”

He took a swipe at both Germany and the UK for their approach, saying, “In the case of Germany we should not be too surprised because an election campaign is in full swing and a way of attacking Angela Merkel is to attack Ursula von der Leyen.”

On the UK, he said, “You have to remember this is where you have a government minister who says the UK is so much better at tackling the crisis than all the rest put together. It is little wonder, therefore, that some, including eurosceptics, will choose to take cheap shots at the EU.”

“While there have been mistakes it would also be a mistake to dispute that we are better off not having a common EU strategy. If we had had 27 Member States separately negotiating contracts with these companies then some would have been supplied and some would not have been.”

The unified EU approach, he argued, had “kept the cohesion of the EU” intact, adding, “we needed a common approach to preserve the single market and, yes, size matters: when you are negotiating for 450 million citizens you have far more leverage which you don’t have if you were doing this on a Member State level.”

Lamberts was highly critical of AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish company that has been at the centre of a huge dispute with the EU over claims that it failed to comply with the terms of its contract with the Commission.

"Rather than offering a public explanation, von der Leyen chose to hold closed-door meetings with some of parliament's political groups. We deem this behaviour unacceptable and urge for the Commission to offer a full account of the management of its vaccination strategy during the Parliament's plenary session in Brussels next week” ECR Group co-leaders Ryszard Legutko and Raffaele Fitto

The MEP said, “It is not an argument, as the company has done, to say merely that it has prioritised those with whom it signed a contract first and that it must supply them first. If they were unable to supply sufficient doses they should have said so when the contract was agreed.”

His Greens/EFA group co-leader, German deputy Ska Keller, also speaking at the same online press briefing on Wednesday, said, “I have been shocked at some of the discussions about the vaccines in some Member States who say they should get vaccines first. That is why it was good to have a common EU approach on vaccine procurement.”

She also raised the issue of global supply of vaccines, saying “this is not so good. There are a lot of places in the world that don’t have access to the funding that we do in Europe and where vaccines are very expensive.”

She added, “It is in our interest to make sure vaccination campaigns go ahead everywhere.”

Elsewhere, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) was particularly scathing of the Commission’s vaccine policy, saying a “lack of clarity” with which it made “crucial decisions, which affect all European citizens, must urgently be addressed.”

A statement by ECR co-leaders Ryszard Legutko and Raffaele Fitto said, “First, the Commission signed contracts with eight manufacturers for a total of approximately two billion doses, the details of which were not fully disclosed to the public.”

“Then, faced with vaccine shortages, von der Leyen announced the EU would trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in an attempt to block COVID-19 vaccine exports from the bloc to Northern Ireland.”

Although the Commission subsequently changed its position, the announcement had already sparked significant criticism on both sides of the Irish border, putting the bloc’s relationship with the UK and Northern Ireland under “considerable strain.”

Their statement added, “Rather than offering a public explanation, von der Leyen chose to hold closed-door meetings with some of parliament's political groups. We deem this behaviour unacceptable and urge for the Commission to offer a full account of the management of its vaccination strategy during the Parliament's plenary session in Brussels next week.”

Meanwhile, later on Thursday, the European Parliament’s Development Committee will discuss with Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, how developing countries can access COVID-19 vaccines. MEPs are expected to urge the Commission to help make vaccines available to developing countries and will be asked to explain how this can be achieved.

A survey for the Commission shows that while a majority of those polled in the 27 Member States said they wanted a jab, only 23 percent wanted it immediately, with 29 percent preferring ‘sometime in 2021’ and 18 percent later still.

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