The EU is facing yet another vaccine fiasco, after Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz threatened to veto a massive 100 million dose purchase of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in a desperate bid to secure more jabs for his country.
The chancellor’s Austria-first posture has once again called into question the level of unity among the EU-27, prized by Eurofanatics. “Solidarity is a one way street to Vienna,” complained one diplomat. “No one else matters in the end game.”
EU leaders were left reeling at last week’s summit when Kurz yet again slammed Brussels’ under fire vaccine procurement strategy for giving Austria a lower share of doses. EU lawyers are scrambling to try and figure out whether a single member state has that kind of veto power. Kurz argues he can block the purchase because the mechanism used to sanction big deals functions on the basis of unanimity.
The audacious move, made after sustained badgering of the EU over its procurement strategy, again calls into question the controversial decision to lump all vaccine purchases for the bloc together under the direction of the European Commission, which had no prior experience of mass procurement under such critical circumstances, instead of leaving it to the member states.
The supply crisis is now so serious that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have opened discussions with Vladimir Putin to access Russia’s Sputnik jab that has been shirked by the rest of the West and is manufactured in small volumes. Germany in particular is franticly trying to source extra vaccine after it again decided to ban use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, this time the under-55s will have to be given alternatives – initially it was the over-65s who were banned from receiving the life-saving medicine.
Downing Street responded by affirming the jab developed in Britain is “safe, effective and has already saved thousands of lives”.
In his campaign to get more vaccine into Austrian arms Kurz has already scored a victory, ripping powers out of the flapping EU Commission. It has now emerged that he utterly dominated last week’s summit, which was originally poised to be an epic showdown over a controversial export ban aimed at Britain. The Austrian leader succeeded in getting his counterparts to agree to strip the EU’s vaccine steering board of its powers to decide which countries get how much vaccine.
Vital doses are divvied up on a pro-rata basis, but there are significant discrepancies. And while Austria is not far below the average number of doses per 100 people – still miles behind Britain – other countries like Latvia and Bulgaria are languishing with only 5.4% and 5.2% of adults having received their first dose respectively, compared to 13.4% in Austria and 21.5% in Malta, which tops the index.
Kurz’s aggressive lobbying campaign has provoked a fiery reaction. One diplomat complained to Politico the Austrian wunderkind is blocking countries from receiving doses that are “in dire need of them, like Latvia and Bulgaria.”
“This shows Kurz is willing to jeopardize the lives of 50 million Europeans to get something he does not even need,” the diplomat added.
Having triggered a dispute of the EU’s legal powers to overrule Austria’s objection to the Pfizer purchase, the rotating presidency of the European Council, currently held by Portugal, will try and sort out the latest Covid crisis at a meeting on Wednesday.
Questioned this week about the veto threat, an Austrian official did not deny Vienna was still piling on the pressure: “Austria hopes for a swift solution of this issue in order to be able for the Commission to move forward as soon as possible on the contract of the additional 100 million Pfizer doses.”
According to the official, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Latvia and Bulgaria are all backing Kurz’s strong-arm tactics.
“It is an empty threat as Austria can’t block the joint procurement scheme,” said a European diplomat. “But if Vienna doesn’t want to participate in the joint procurement scheme any longer, it will surely get its way. Other member states would certainly be ready to step in and buy up the Austrian share.”
Kurz’s critics claim he is trying to divert attention away from his decision to not take up the full allocation of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson jabs made available to the alpine nation by the EU. It should be pointed out however that the J&J vaccine will not be available until late April because the shots are bottled in the US where an export ban applies until American demand is satisfied.
The deadline for the Pfizer deal is mid-April, which will quickly release 10 million of the 100 million doses being purchased.