3rd Oct 2023

EU blasts UK and Russia in 'vaccine propaganda' war

The EU and UK have ignited a new row on vaccine exports, while Italy has defied EU warnings in a deal to manufacture Russia's vaccine at home.

The cross-Channel dispute arose on Tuesday (9 March) when EU Council president Charles Michel accused the UK of blocking vaccine exports and depicted the EU as a leading force in helping the world fight the pandemic.

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"I am ... shocked when I hear the accusations of 'vaccine nationalism' against the EU," Michel said in a written statement.

"Here again, the facts do not lie. The United Kingdom 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 said.

The EU recently endorsed Italy's blockade of a vaccine shipment to Australia.

But this was not an export ban, so much as a bid "to prevent companies from which we have ordered and pre-financed doses from exporting them to other advanced countries when they have not delivered to us what was promised," Michel said.

The EU had put aside €2.7 billion in its 'Covax' scheme for vaccines for poor countries on the EU's eastern fringe and in Latin America and Africa, he added.

"Most of the doses with which Israel embarked on its mass vaccination programme were sent from Belgium," he also said.

EU investment in vaccine-research and production by "European companies" also meant "Europe will be a major ally in freeing the world from this virus," Michel said.

His statement prompted UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab to summon the EU ambassador to Britain to complain.

Raab also wrote to Michel "to set the record straight".

"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," Raab said, according to British media.

Tuesday's war of words recalled a previous dispute, in January, when the EU, briefly, invoked a clause in the Brexit deal to stop British vaccine exports to Northern Ireland, on grounds British producers had not fulfilled their EU contracts.

Michel also tweeted a rebuff to Raab's letter on Tuesday evening, saying there were "different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines".

"Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports, to EU and third countries," Michel added.

And the vaccine-clash comes amid a wider one on post-Brexit trade.

EU states' ambassadors in Brussels on Tuesday endorsed European Commission proposals to pursue legal action against the UK over its unilateral suspension of parts of the Northern Ireland customs accord, the Financial Times newspaper reported.

The EU push-back would involve "infringement proceedings" and potential fines at the European Court of Justice, as well as a "political" letter to the UK, triggering international arbitration, diplomats said.

Meanwhile, Michel also took aim at China and Russia for using vaccines to push their geopolitical agenda.

"We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others," Michel said.

"These countries have administered half as many doses per 100 [of their own] inhabitants as the European Union," Michel noted.

"Europe will not use vaccines for propaganda purposes," he said.

Italy-Russia deal

But the same day, Italy announced a propaganda win for Russia, by saying it would become the first EU country to start manufacturing Russia's 'Sputnik V' vaccine in Europe.

"The innovative production process will help create new jobs and allow Italy to control the entire production of the compound,'' the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce said.

The deal, between Adienne, an Italian subsidiary of a Swiss firm, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, aimed to make 10 million doses starting in July.

And Russia was in talks on 20 similar projects in the EU, the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce said.

Hungary and Slovakia earlier broke with the EU by authorising Sputnik V imports, even though the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Paris, the bloc's regulator, has not yet cleared it.

Russia, also on Tuesday, attacked an EMA official, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, for her comments on Sputnik V, the use of which, at this stage, was "partly comparable with Russian roulette," she said on Austrian TV at the weekend.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called her remarks "inappropriate".

"Such comments ... undermine the credibility of the EMA and its review process. Vaccines and the EMA should be above and beyond politics," Sputnik V's Twitter account added.

France next?

The Russian Direct Investment Fund also said production would be rolled out to Belarus, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, South Korea, and Turkey.

Michel's comments echoed a threat assessment by Lithuanian intelligence services, published last week, which said China and Russia were "abusing" vaccine exports as "a new geopolitical instrument of global influence".

But France has also held advanced talks on Sputnik V production, including at the highest level between French president Emmanuel Macron and Russian president Vladimir Putin, according to French officials who spoke to the AP news agency.

The Macron-Putin vaccine project comes amid broader French efforts to improve Russia relations via a "strategic dialogue", in a process that is widely mistrusted by eastern European EU states.

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