BRUSSELS – The fight over vaccines between the UK and the European Union intensified on Wednesday, highlighting rapidly deteriorating relations that have already been delayed by disputes over the deal that consolidated the UK’s divorce from the bloc.
The latest blow to once-close relations between major US allies came when the EU announced that it would consider giving member states more power to block exports of Covid-19 vaccines, of which the Kingdom Kingdom has been the largest recipient outside the EU.
The UK vaccine campaign has given at least one injection to nearly half of the adults in the country, in contrast to the EU’s faltering launch so far.
Britain left the bloc on January 31 last year and began a new economic relationship earlier this year based on a last-minute trade deal detailing an arm’s length trade relationship.
At the time, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the agreement marked “a resolution of the old, tired and controversial question of Britain’s political relations with Europe, which has complicated our post-war history.” He said the UK would be the “best friend and ally the EU could have”.
So far, it has not worked like that.
The relationship “is very dysfunctional and the open channels to fix things are broken,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm.
Actions by both the UK and the EU have weakened confidence in a part of the divorce treaty that was aimed at avoiding a border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. Britain has refused to grant the EU envoy in London full diplomatic status, resulting in the British ambassador in Brussels being unable to attend the meetings. Meanwhile, trade between the UK and European nations has fallen dramatically due to the pandemic and new barriers to trade introduced this year for the first time in nearly five decades.
The pandemic has ignited the teething pains that were expected in this new relationship. Britain licensed and implemented its vaccines faster than European nations, which had left the EU to handle acquisitions on its behalf. The UK was also able to quickly close contracts for the supply of vaccines.
European battle of Covid-19
Some of the leading European health regulators and politicians wondered if a vaccine developed and launched in the UK by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford was effective in older people. Since then, the data has confirmed it. After a shortfall in the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU, several European governments suspended use of the vaccine for fear that it could cause blood clots.
Pro-Brexit activists pointed to the vaccine problems in the EU as an example of why Britain was right to leave the bloc.
“Just this week we have seen what happens when the anti-science, anti-entrepreneurship and anti-technology culture in Brussels marries its heinous bureaucracy in their insane decisions on AstraZeneca vaccine warnings,” Dominic Cummings, former chief of staff of Mr. Johnson, he said Wednesday.
The EU introduced a mechanism in late January that allowed member states to stop the export of vaccine doses outside the bloc. Since then, only one export batch has been stopped.
The UK government has not banned vaccine exports. But under the contracts it signed with vaccine providers, it has struck first-come, first-served agreements that have bolstered its vaccination campaign. Last week, the UK summoned a senior EU diplomat in response to accusations by European Council President Charles Michel that Britain had an “absolute ban” on exports.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday the EU could tighten its export ban to stop shipping vaccines to countries that did not sell vaccines to the bloc and were at the forefront of vaccination campaigns. Given that Britain has been by far the top recipient of vaccination, with 10 million doses sold to the UK since the end of January, Ms von der Leyen said Britain was a country from which she wanted to see reciprocity.
The EU has exported 40 million doses of vaccines since January, making the bloc the world’s leading exporter of vaccines, despite its difficulties in purchasing and distributing vaccines.
The vaccine tensions come in the context of friction between London and Brussels over the implementation of the Brexit deal and, in particular, the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, a complicated deal that allows the UK region of Ireland to North keep an open border. with the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU. The agreement stipulates that the UK must carry out customs checks on products heading from the British mainland to Northern Ireland to make sure they comply with EU standards.
Britain has said it would unilaterally delay the full implementation of the controls, which were scheduled to start next month. On Monday, the EU executive body said it was taking legal action over that decision. The move could result in sanctions imposed by the bloc’s highest court and, once the post-Brexit trade deal is fully ratified, retaliatory measures against the UK.
British officials believe the EU is trying to protect its single market at the risk of undermining the peace process in Ireland. Earlier this year, the EU commission published a plan to ban the export of vaccines to Northern Ireland. The decision was never implemented, but it intensified opposition among pro-UK trade unionists to the Brexit deal in Northern Ireland.
The Biden administration has pushed Brussels and London to tread carefully on Ireland. “We continue to encourage both the European Union and the UK government to prioritize pragmatic solutions to safeguard and promote the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Senior British government officials, such as David Frost, who negotiated the Brexit deal and now leads the EU government’s strategy, have also accused the EU of harboring ill will towards Britain due to its departure.
The fight for the diplomatic status of the EU ambassador in London has meant that communications between top officials in Brussels and the United Kingdom have been exhausted, people on both sides said.
Meanwhile, with the emergence of new trade barriers this year, there has been a sharp drop in trade between the two sides, although it is unclear how much is related to the pandemic and storage by importers and exporters last year. UK data shows that British goods exports to the EU decreased by 41% in January compared to the previous month, and imports by 56%, compared to the previous year.
—Jason Douglas in London contributed to this article.
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