Speeding up vaccinations in Europe
In view of rising numbers of new cases across Europe, the European Council did not meet in Brussels as had originally been planned. Instead the meeting again took the form of a video conference. The pandemic was the central issue addressed by the EU heads of state and government – in particular the question of how to move ahead faster with vaccinations in Europe.
Stricter controls on vaccine exports
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen first reported to the heads of state and government on changes in regulations pertaining to controls of vaccine exports, adopted by the Commission on Wednesday. The changes provide for member states and the Commission to check COVID-19 vaccine exports not only to ascertain whether the manufacturer is honouring its contracts with the EU, but also to see whether or not the country of destination has imposed its own export bans, as well as looking at the epidemiological situation, the rate of vaccination and the stocks of vaccines in that country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that in spite of the controls, global supply chains should not be broken. Nevertheless there is an interest in ensuring that “countries that have concluded contracts with us are also in fact honouring those contracts,” she said. She pointed to the fact that the EU, in contrast to the USA and the UK, is not only supplying its own people with vaccine, but is exporting to the wider world. On the one hand global supply chains must be respected and protectionism combatted, but on the other, we must also supply our own people “because we know that is the way out of the crisis”.
Fair distribution within the EU
The heads of state and government also discussed the distribution of vaccines within the EU. Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Latvia had indicated that they had received fewer doses than they were entitled to, given the size of their populations. The background was the shortage of AstraZeneca vaccine doses, which was the vaccine these countries had ordered more of.
Luckily, BioNTech has declared itself ready and willing to supply an additional ten million doses in the second quarter, which were actually pencilled in for the fourth quarter, explained Angela Merkel. “We obviously want to retain the pro-rata approach for every country and nevertheless use mechanisms based on a spirit of solidarity,” she stated clearly. The Committee of Permanent Representatives was invited to find a fair solution.
Fighting the pandemic globally
The European Council also wants to strengthen the international COVAX initiative and supply African states, for instance, with vaccine. The Chancellor pointed out that the EU is very much aware that we will only have beaten the virus when everyone in the world has had the opportunity to be vaccinated. The swift vaccination of the population of the European Union is no guarantee that mutations are not emerging elsewhere, that would come to us and could compromise the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Video link with President Joe Biden an important gesture
One highlight of the European Council meeting was an exchange with the USA’s newly elected President, Joe Biden on the transatlantic agenda. “There is a lot of common ground that we cultivate and that we intend to cultivate more once again,” said the Chancellor. She gave the examples of cooperation on climate action, trade and relations with China, Russia and Turkey.
The Chancellor expressed her hope that in summer it might be possible to welcome Joe Biden in person to the European Council and perhaps a NATO meeting in Europe. “Today was a first introduction, but it was a very very important gesture and it means that we are once again in closer contact.”
Continuing dialogue with Turkey
With a view to Turkey, the heads of state and government welcomed the de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean with regard to Greece and Cyprus. At the same time they expressed their concern about the domestic developments inside Turkey, in particular its withdrawal from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
In spite of the serious differences of opinion that exist on some points, not talking with Turkey cannot be the answer, said Angela Merkel. We need contact with Turkey at all levels so that we can discuss controversial issues as well as our common interests. She pointed to the EU-Turkey statement, which has proved its worth and above all helped a great many refugees.
Digitalisation and strengthening the euro
The further development of the digital union was another focus of deliberations. In a joint initiative, Germany and other member states had asked the Commission to act swiftly to ensure digital sovereignty. “We also asked for an analysis of our weaknesses,” said the Chancellor. There is urgent need for action both in terms of regulating online platforms and with a view to artificial intelligence and the framework required. “This also includes digital identity, which is a precondition for a digital single market.“
After the video conference the Chancellor took stock. “I think it was very effective and very concise, but very successful.”