Bom dia and welcome to Europe Express! EU leaders may have been invited to Portugal to talk about social issues, but when they gather for dinner in Porto tonight, vaccine patent waivers will be the more pressing item on their agenda.

The topic is also likely to feature in tomorrow’s summit with India’s prime minister, who is one of the main campaigners for waiving patent rights to Covid-19 vaccines. We will examine the reasons why the EU’s response has been lukewarm at best, and what the next steps will be.

Further down, we will also tune into Poland’s latest episode in its long-running dispute with Brussels over the rule of law, after the European Court of Justice issued an opinion on how Polish judges should be disciplined. And as on every Friday, we bring you a selection of smart reads for the weekend.

Once again, the EU has found itself on the back foot when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccination campaign, write Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden in Brussels.

This time, the running is being made by the Biden administration, which dropped an overnight bombshell on Wednesday by announcing its support for the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 jabs.

The following day, Germany — home to BioNTech, which with Pfizer is behind one of the leading vaccines — struck a deeply sceptical note about the US proposal, saying it would have “far-reaching implications for the production of vaccines as a whole”. (Read more here)

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas responded to the US proposal by telling a news conference that his country was “ready to have that discussion”, but cautioned that the priority should be to increase vaccine production capacity.

Switzerland, home to a sizeable pharmaceutical industry, also expressed scepticism. The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said that waiving IP rights in the context of the pandemic could not guarantee fair, affordable and rapid access to vaccines.

Earlier in the day, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, gave a tepid response to the announcement by Katherine Tai, Joe Biden’s top trade adviser.

Europe was “ready to discuss” what such a waiver could achieve, she said, before pointedly reminding her audience at the European University Institute that the EU was already doing more than others in the global vaccination campaign.

More than 200m doses of vaccines produced in Europe have been shipped to the rest of the world, and Europe exports as many vaccines as it delivers to its own citizens, she argued. The same cannot be said for countries, including the US.

Behind the scenes, the US move has thrown EU vaccine policy back into confusion.

The bloc has resisted a push for a patent waiver in discussions at the World Trade Organization, where India and South Africa have led calls for pharma companies to share their intellectual property.

The EU has been more comfortable discussing a so-called third way, championed by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s director-general, which focuses on transfers of knowhow rather than patent overrides.

The risk for Brussels is that if it appears to drag its feet in the face of such a bold US initiative, it will expose itself to being labelled a global villain. The parallels with the EU’s controversial vaccine export restrictions, imposed earlier this year, are evident. “We are awful at PR,” said one diplomat.

Divisions within the EU over how to respond will probably be aired at a leaders’ meeting in Porto today and tomorrow. While Germany is striking a sceptical tone, France and the Netherlands have sounded more open to the idea.

There is a genuine debate to be had over how useful the waiver would truly be — and indeed how serious the US is in championing one given the lack of detail in its statement. Manufacturing vaccines is an enormously complex process, within which IP rights are only one small component — as Germany pointed out.

But given the symbolic power of the US proposal, the EU will find itself under enormous pressure to play a constructive role.

Lollipop chart showing Market value of the world’s 20 most valuable life science/pharmaceutical companies as at 23 Apr 2021

The US decision to back a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines was met with hesitation in Europe, particularly in countries with large pharmaceutical sectors, such as Switzerland.

For more than five years, Poland’s ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party and the European Commission have been at loggerheads over changes to the Polish judiciary that Brussels fears are a serious threat to the rule of law, writes James Shotter in Warsaw.

The latest salvo was fired yesterday: in a closely watched case about rules on disciplinary procedures for Polish judges, a critical adviser to the EU’s top court issued an opinion arguing that the regime was in violation of EU law. The court is set to rule later this year.

In March, the ECJ ruled against another aspect of Poland’s revamped laws regarding top judges, saying that they should have the right to appeal when they are reviewed for joining the Supreme Court. The commission also asked the ECJ to suspend decisions from the Supreme Court’s disciplinary chamber, which it alleged undermined the judges’ independence.

Yesterday, Evgeni Tanchev, advocate-general to the ECJ, took issue with that same disciplinary chamber, arguing that its autonomy had not been guaranteed, and that aspects of the disciplinary regime could have a “chilling effect” on Polish judges.

He also said that Polish judges potentially being subjected to disciplinary procedures simply for referring questions to the ECJ struck “at the heart of . . . the very foundations of the Union itself”.

Law and Justice has long argued that the changes were necessary to overhaul a lumbering and inefficient system. Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s deputy justice minister, hit back at the advocate-general’s opinion, accusing EU officials of applying “double standards” and arguing that the EU did not have the right to interfere in the legal systems of member states.

Opinions issued by the advocates-general are not binding, but are often followed by the ECJ. A test for the EU will be if Poland refuses to implement the court’s decisions.