Good morning and welcome to Europe Express. The spat between the US and the EU over vaccine patent waivers will probably persist after being given extra impetus by the bloc’s leaders over the weekend. Low- and middle-income countries can only watch the quarrel with dismay while their demands for vaccines remain unmet. We will come back to this in a minute.
Several big beneficiaries of the EU recovery fund have submitted their spending plans, and our Chart du jour reveals how Italy, France, Spain Greece compare in terms of grants and loans. Norway, meanwhile, is due to receive advice on whether to join Denmark in ditching both the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
We will also look at why the EU’s attempt at direct democracy — the Conference on the Future of Europe — is off to a rocky start.
The international debate about vaccine patents is in danger of descending into a transatlantic tiff that distracts from the pressing need to provide poorer countries access to life-saving jabs, writes Brussels correspondent Mehreen Khan.
At their Porto summit this weekend, EU leaders hit back at a surprise call from the Biden administration for temporary waivers on vaccine patents to help drugmakers in poorer countries ramp up supplies in the face of deadly virus variants. Here is the FT’s take on how the EU sought to turn the tables on US president Joe Biden.
France’s Emmanuel Macron led the charge with caustic criticism of “Anglo-Saxon” countries that he accused of blocking exports of vaccines and vital materials. While declaring openness to discussing the merits of vaccine waivers, EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel stressed the need to boost exports from the richer countries — a cause they said the EU has led.
EU officials privately think the US shift sounds like a PR stunt to position Washington as a benevolent force in the international vaccines debate. The US did not consult or try to co-ordinate their announcement with Brussels, EU officials said, leaving the bloc snookered in its own public response.
Brussels thinks patent waivers — which have been demanded by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization since late 2020 — are a distraction from more pressing policies that can quickly ramp up supply.
The patent spat lay bare a trifecta of crises: Covid-19, WTO governance and the intellectual property regime, according to Jayashree Watal, a former senior WTO official specialising in patents. Speaking to Verfassungsblog.de, she explained why she did not believe a waiver can help: in order for the novel mRNA technology to be replicated safely, the vaccine inventors would have to co-operate with generic drug manufacturers. And that is not a given.
This is also a reason why the EU wants to refocus the debate on granting wider licensing to drugmakers to produce existing jabs and pressuring the US to start exporting more vital materials.
Deliveries by Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access — or Covax — have reached only about 60m doses, compared with the initiative’s 250m target by the end of May. Covax is mainly using the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in South Korea and India. But given the terrible effect of the second wave in India, local authorities in March decided to halt exports, which led to a significant drop in Covax shipments.
The US has pledged $4bn to Covax, but has exported hardly any vaccines produced on its soil. Meanwhile, according to von der Leyen, around 50 per cent of vaccines produced in Europe have been exported to almost 90 countries. The EU has also pledged €2.5bn to the Covax initiative.
The spat is another strain on what was supposed to be a revamped EU-US relationship built on trust and co-operation after the turbulence of the Trump years.
But Biden has already shown that the return of US leadership on the world stage in areas from international taxation, climate change and now vaccines means setting the agenda and waiting for the rest — including Europe — to follow. The golden age of western multilateralism was ever thus.
The impact of the EU recovery fund will probably be more fully included in the commission’s economic outlook due on Wednesday. Economists think the borrowing programme could deliver a healthy boost to the bloc’s economic prospects. (Find out more here)
Norway will decide this week whether to follow Denmark’s lead and drop both the AstraZeneca and J&J jabs from its Covid-19 vaccine programme following several blood clot deaths, writes Richard Milne, our Nordic and Baltic correspondent.
Denmark has already excluded both jabs and is only using those from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna that rely on mRNA technology. Sweden meanwhile decided to donate 1m of its AstraZeneca doses to the Covax facility.
There were mixed messages from the rest of Europe: Germany last week expanded the use of AstraZeneca to all adults while the UK stopped it from being taken by those under 40. The European Commission has already seen the way the wind was blowing and after 2021 looks set to order only mRNA jabs.
Norway’s public health authority last month recommended that the country drop AstraZeneca after four people died in the Scandinavian country from the rare combination of blood clots and low level of platelets.
The government in Oslo was so worried about the implications and what it would mean for the J&J jab — which relies on similar technology — that it ordered an expert commission to look into the risks and report back by today.
The commission, which is made up of 13 academics and health professionals from Norway and Europe, will present its report at a press conference this morning, with the government expected to make its mind up later in the week.
Erna Solberg, the centre-right prime minister, summed up why Norway might drop both jabs at the FT’s Global Boardroom event last week, when she said it would be “intolerable” if more people died from vaccines than from the pandemic.
The Conference on the Future of Europe was finally launched yesterday in Strasbourg, with limited fanfare but relief that the long-awaited exercise is actually happening, writes Mehreen Khan.
Emmanuel Macron was front and centre to cut the red ribbon on the Conference, a brainchild he first devised in the aftermath of the European elections in 2019.
Already a year overdue, the Conference’s ambitions have been severely downgraded since Macron announced his desire for a Convention style format that would help “define Europe’s strategy for the next five years, including changes to the Treaties”.
The pandemic has proven to be the enemy of the will for EU reform. Europe’s governments, including France, have shown no appetite for institutional change as they gear up for a crucial period of post-pandemic economic rehabilitation. Any steps toward treaty change have already been ruled out.
Yesterday’s launch was itself almost canned over divisions between the European parliament, commission and member states on what the exercise is meant to achieve and the role citizens should play in it. Last week, MEPs claimed victory after they managed to ensure that the final results of the exercise won’t be drawn up by a handful of technocrats, but done in consultation with parliamentarians and citizens.
The outcome and purpose remain unknown but the format is certainly novel. The Conference will involve 108 randomly selected citizens, 108 national parliamentarians, 54 government representatives and three commissioners. Citizen involvement will be done largely online using a multilingual platform where participants can contribute ideas and priorities for EU reform. The Conference will run for less than a year, so Macron can produce the results during the French EU council presidency next spring.
For some, such as the commission, the involvement of citizens makes the Conference a worthwhile exercise even if it produces no tangible results.
But there are already fears that those taking part will not be representative of the EU as a whole. Though randomly selected, the absence of criteria to ensure racial, religious or ethnic diversity among the chosen participants risks “excluding already marginalising communities”, warned Citizens Take Over Europe, a grassroots organisation.
. . . and later this week