So far this year, the competition for vaccines has put some well-publicised strain on the UK-EU relationship.
A number of key moments stand out: the EU’s aborted plan to implement a vaccine border on the island of Ireland; Emmanuel Macron (erroneously) calling the AstraZeneca vaccine “quasi ineffective” in over 65s; Charles Michel suggesting the UK was blocking AstraZeneca exports; and rumours of EU vaccine blockades.
In this context it has been easy to assume that ‘vaccine wars’ have set the UK-EU relationship back – but as we enter spring, it seems these concerns may have been overstated.
Those very public spats aside, the messages from EU capitals have been more nuanced. Angela Merkel recently warned against a vaccines exports ban, preaching dialogue instead, with her position echoed by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU medicines regulator now has less strict restrictions on who the AstraZeneca vaccine can be administered to than its UK equivalent.
Added to all this are two important trends: the EU’s vaccination programme is gathering speed, and future supply chains look in healthier shape.
If this continues, we may look back on the last few months as just a bump in the much longer narrative of both sides’ economic and political recovery form Covid-19.
Supply chains are improving
The single biggest cause of tension over vaccines has been the supply of AstraZeneca shots to the EU.
The European Commission says it received only a quarter of the AstraZeneca doses it ordered up to the end of March 2021 – and significantly less of its allotted quota than the UK received. Questions have also been raised over the lack of any vaccine exports from the UK.
Although this lack of supply was not the only reason for its slow vaccine rollout (a lot of doses went unused), it was an especially sore point for the EU.
Yet the supply picture is improving quickly. The EU received around 100 million vaccine doses by the end of March, of which roughly 30 million were AstraZeneca.
This means EU member states should be able to administer a lot more vaccines over the spring, while being notably less reliant on AstraZeneca: a situation which should reduce not only cases, but also leaders’ anger over AstraZeneca supplies.
EU programme gathering pace
In late January, as tensions over AstraZeneca supplies began to take off, the UK’s vaccination programme was far ahead of the EU’s. The UK had administered first doses to 2.5% of its population, compared to 14.2% in the UK – five and a half times more vaccines per capita. By mid-February, the gap had increased to six and a half times.
The UK remains well ahead of the EU, but the gap is narrowing: now down to just over two times.
This trend is partly driven by the steadily rising EU vaccine rate. It’s also down to the fact that the UK programme is now administering more and more second doses – reducing the number of daily new doses.
The UK was behind the EU on second doses administered until late March, but has now given out two and a half times as many second doses per capita.
Much could still happen to change the picture over the next three months, but it does point to the EU’s gradually improving vaccine programme giving it more positive stories to tell.
For example, the EU is sounding increasingly bullish about meeting its target of vaccinating 70% of its population by the end of July.
With this improving picture, the EU could well start talking more about its own success, and less about AstraZeneca’s failures.
Other issues emerging
There is also perhaps a growing sense on both sides that there is something to be gained by cooling the rhetoric.
As the Institute for Government points out, recent rows serve to underline how interlinked the UK and EU’s supply chains are, and how reliant they will be on each other not only for the future supply of vaccines, but also other medical goods such as PPE.
The EU may also be turning its attention increasingly to the internal politics of vaccine procurement.
France and Germany have followed Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in engaging in discussions with Russia over the potential procurement of Sputnik V vaccines, in defiance of the EU’s desire to collectively procure all vaccines.
Austria has also been agitating over its perceived lack of supply, threatening to block a collective procurement of 100 million extra doses as a consequence.
The Commission’s decision to procure vaccines collectively was based on the idea that it could use its heft to negotiate on behalf of all members, ensuring smaller states were not left behind.
The strategy reflects the fundamental principles which the Union stands for. Upholding them is thus a priority, and if supplies improve as expected, the EU’s key priority on vaccines could well be pointing this out to ensure all members stick to the collective approach.
The UK also has its own reasons to want to calm tensions.
Due to the successful first phase of the vaccine rollout, the Government is focused increasingly on the gradual unlocking of society. Two of the thorniest questions are whether to introduce domestic vaccine passports, and to what extent international travel will be allowed this summer.
On the latter question, close cooperation with the EU will be vital. The EU plans to have a ‘Green Certificate’ in place by mid-June which would facilitate travel between member states by providing evidence of either a vaccination, recent recovery from Covid-19, or a negative test result.
Summer travel is an EU economic priority, and for member states such as Spain, Greece and Portugal the ability to receive British tourists will be vital. Likewise, the UK Government will be cognisant of these being priority summer holiday destinations for lockdown-fatigued Brits.
The EU says it wants to ensure its Green Certificate is compatible with and recognised by similar systems outside the EU. It is in both the UK and EU’s interests to address this as soon as possible, leaving potential travellers enough time to book summer holidays.
Effective solutions will require greater cooperation and goodwill on both sides. It will be a test of the new UK-EU relationship to see whether they can put the vaccine difficulties of the past few months behind them, for each other’s mutual benefit.
By Joël Reland, Public Policy and Foreign Policy researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.