Vaccine wars: EU member states double down against Britain

The EU has stepped up its war against AstraZeneca with threats of legal action as national capitals warn against supplying Britain with covid vaccine.

Undeterred by the EU’s humiliating U-turns on Friday, after causing outrage for slapping the UK with a vaccine export ban and closing Ireland’s internal border for the transit of jabs, member states are looking to the courts to keep the fight going against AstraZeneca.

“If there is a problem and that other countries have been favoured – for example the UK over us – then we will defend our interests,” France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, said on Sunday.

“Contracts are not moral commitments, they are legal commitments. Penalties or sanctions can be triggered in every contract.”

The French are looking into a range of options, including holding off payments, cancelling follow-up orders and demanding compensation for breach of contract by the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant which produces the Oxford vaccine.

Last week saw the EU quickly escalate threats against both AstraZeneca and the UK after European leaders were told they would receive less than 25% of the doses originally agreed. France is now looking at receiving half of what it was originally pledged.

Beaune said an investigation has been launched into UK deliveries from EU-based pharmaceutical plants.

Germany and Italy are looking to put a similar squeeze on vaccine manufacturers.

Germany’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier said: “If we find out that individual companies are not maintaining their side of the bargain then we’ll have to make a decision on legal measures.”

Altmaier, a close ally of chancellor Angela Merkel, added: “it is in no way acceptable that another country is retrospectively favoured over the EU.”

The EU is expected to build its case around the claim its contract with AstraZeneca includes a binding commitment to supply the bloc with Covid vaccine. AstraZeneca says this is hogwash pointing to “best endeavours” clauses in the contract making it anything but binding.

EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen initially denied the mention of the phrase in its deal with AZ, but the redacted version of the contract published by the EU last week to try and bolster its case embarrassingly revealed “best endeavours” was included after all.

The latest move by the EU, orchestrated by leading member states, is an attempt to put a torrid three days which saw the European Commission’s international reputation all but vaporised.

The FT reports Japan, South Korea and Canada have all condemned the EU’s actions in banning exports to certain countries through hastily put together measures that were transparently designed to target the United Kingdom.

It was later revealed that the decision to trigger an article in the Brexit withdrawal agreement imposing a hard border on the island of Ireland was made by von der Leyen in defiance of her advisers. She did not even take the courtesy to warn her own Brexit taskforce, let alone Dublin or London.

The Commission president, who was parachuted into the role in 2019 by Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron to help steer Franco-German objectives in spite of her reputation for cronyism, later rowed back on the Ireland border error, but it was too late to avoid a vicious backlash from the European press.

Her actions “damaged the credibility of the EU itself,” said Die Welt, in a column entitled Ursula von der Leyen’s unforgettable own goal.

No wonder Germany’s former defence minister, who came under fire for awarding dodgy contracts during her time in office, is facing calls to resign.