Germany presses Brussels for powers to block vaccine exports

Germany is pressing the European Commission to give member states the power to block the export of coronavirus vaccines produced in the EU as tensions mounted over shortfalls in supply.

Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, urged Brussels to force companies to obtain permission before shipping jabs from the bloc. His proposals came as Brussels worked on new rules for exports, due to be unveiled on Friday, with officials divided over how stringent the regime should be.

Germany, which hosts a number of vaccine manufacturing sites, has become the most vocal proponent of tougher export restrictions.

“It’s not about ‘EU first’. It’s about Europe’s fair share,” said Mr Spahn. “That’s why I think it would make sense to have a restriction on exports. It would mean that vaccines that leave the EU need a permit, so that at least we know what’s produced in Europe, what is leaving Europe, where it’s leaving Europe for, and we have a fair distribution.”

However, Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU trade commissioner, on Tuesday said that Brussels did not want to impose curbs on shipments but instead said companies should be forced to provide more information about where they were sending vaccine supplies. The commission hopes to table an “export notification instrument” by the end of the week. 

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, urged the EU not to impose export restrictions of any kind.

“The creation of these vaccines has been a wonderful example of multinational co-operation and one of the lessons the world has to learn from the pandemic is to co-operate,” Mr Johnson said. “So I don’t want to see restrictions on the supply of PPE, drugs or vaccines or their ingredients across border.”

The EU is struggling to get its vaccine rollout strategy back on track after AstraZeneca informed officials late last week that its production would sharply undershoot expectations.

In Germany, Mr Spahn has come under mounting pressure over the sluggish start to Germany’s vaccination campaign and the shortage of doses of the jab. Opposition parties have criticised the government for turning over responsibility for the procurement of vaccines to the EU.

The EU has fallen behind the US and UK in its pace of Covid-19 vaccinations as it awaits a decision from the bloc’s medical regulator on whether to approve AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which could come on Friday. 

Amid member state anger over the AstraZeneca production shortfalls, Brussels is exploring several options, including a temporary regime introduced last March governing exports of personal protective equipment. This made the export of certain products subject to authorisation by the relevant member state.

Such a scheme could risk friction with other countries and stoke questions about whether the EU is reneging on public commitments to ensure vaccines are distributed equitably around the world. On the same day that Mr Spahn was talking about export restrictions, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was speaking about the dangers of “isolation” and “partitioning” Europe off from the rest of the world.

Addressing the digital World Economic Forum, she said that in terms of Covid-19 vaccines, “it is even clearer to me than before that we must choose a multilateral approach, that isolation is not going to help solve the problem.”

She said rich countries must ensure that vaccines are made available to poorer nations. “Money is one thing, but at a time when vaccines are scarce it’s also about distributing them fairly,” she said.

Mr Dombrovskis stressed on Tuesday that the regime being worked on in Brussels would be subject to a range of exemptions, including when the export was for humanitarian reasons.

Diplomats said on Tuesday that the ultimate shape of the rules was still in flux given the sensitivities involved.

“Right now we have no idea what it’s about,” one EU diplomat said. “But blocking exports might be a little too much, since it would start a trade war with the US — six days after saying we should rebuild transatlantic relations.”

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