Tensions between the EU and UK over coronavirus vaccine supplies exploded in an angry public row when London denounced claims from Brussels that it had imposed an export ban.
Boris Johnson’s government reacted furiously to a claim by Charles Michel, European Council president, that the UK had banned shipments of jabs and their components, with one official branding it “an outright lie”.
On Tuesday night Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, wrote to Michel saying that “any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false”. He added: “We are all facing this pandemic together.”
Raab has summoned a representative of the EU delegation in London to the Foreign Office on Wednesday to “discuss the issue further”. His officials say the “false claim” had been repeated at various levels within the EU, in spite of the UK correcting the record on each occasion.
Michel also accused the US of banning exports of vaccines and their raw materials. His comments are the latest deterioration in relations between the UK and EU, which are already at loggerheads over the implementation of the Brexit agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European bloc.
Michel’s comments come just days after Italy, with the European Commission’s consent, blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia under new discretionary export rules. The move deepened concerns among EU allies about the new regulations, which were introduced in January, and the prospects more jab supplies could be blocked.
Michel, a former Belgian premier who chairs summits of EU leaders, triggered the latest conflict in a blog published on Monday in which he hit back at criticisms of the European bloc’s sluggish Covid-19 immunisation drive.
He said he was “shocked” to hear “accusations of ‘vaccine nationalism’” levelled against the EU over its export controls, given what he said were much tougher rules imposed by London and Washington.
“The facts do not lie,” Michel wrote. “The United Kingdom and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.”
The Johnson administration says there is no block on UK factories supplying foreign customers with contracted vaccine supplies. It was not immediately clear what shipments have been dispatched from the UK — or their destination.
A senior EU official insisted Michel was correct, adding that the UK operated a “de facto temporary export ban”. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The EU has been scrambling to boost vaccine supplies and make up ground on the faster inoculation drives of the US and UK. The European bloc has given 9.4 doses per 100 residents, compared with 27.8 in the US and 35.2 in the UK, according to data compiled by the Financial Times.
Brussels and London clashed in January over a European Commission plan to include Northern Ireland in new controls on vaccine exports outside the EU, even though the region remains part of the European bloc’s single market for goods.
The move would have triggered the Article 16 override provision of the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the Brexit treaty — and put up a temporary border in Ireland for jab supplies. Neither London nor Dublin were consulted on the plan.
The EU has also expressed anger over AstraZeneca’s use of vaccine production in the European bloc to meet UK orders of the jab.
Michel’s criticism of the US over exports comes just a day after Thierry Breton, EU internal market commissioner, began talks with Jeffrey Zients, US Covid-19 co-ordinator, aimed at enhancing co-operation between the two economies on vaccines.
The Europeans are anxious to ensure the continued US supply to the EU of crucial raw materials supplies, such as lipid nanoparticles used in pioneering mRNA vaccines.