Britain denies ‘completely false’ EU claims as a new vaccine dispute boils over

Key Points
  • Concerns over vaccine nationalism emerged in late January.
  • The EU's restrictions on exports of Covid-19 jabs can only be applied in two instances.
  • In parallel, the EU and the U.K. are also at odds over their post-Brexit arrangements.
A U.K. national flag flies beside European Union (EU) flags outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels.
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LONDON — The European Union and the United Kingdom have clashed over the export of coronavirus vaccines, with Britain fiercely denying it has blocked any shipments to other nations.

The latest battle emerged after European Council President Charles Michel accused the U.K. on Tuesday of having an "outright ban" on exports of Covid-19 vaccines.

He said in a newsletter that he was "shocked" when hearing accusations of vaccine nationalism against the EU when other parts of the world, such as the U.K. and the U.S., "have imposed outright bans" on these vaccines.

EU and UK enter a new dispute over Covid-19 vaccines
EU and UK enter a new dispute over Covid-19 vaccines

This was not the first time that European officials have made comments on this subject. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a press conference in February that the United States and Britain have systems in place that block vaccine exports.

However, the British government was quick to deny the accusations on Tuesday. "The U.K. government has not blocked the exports of a single Covid-19 vaccine. Any references to a U.K. export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false," a government spokesperson told CNBC.

The EU did not wait long to reply. Michel, who chairs the meetings between the 27 EU heads of state, said on Twitter that there are "different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines."

"Glad if the U.K. reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports," he added.

The U.K.'s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will have discussions with EU officials on Wednesday to clarify the situation.

How they got here

Concerns over vaccine nationalism — the idea that a country or region is doing its utmost to ensure it has Covid-19 vaccines for its own population even if that's to the detriment of other parts of the world — emerged in late January.

The European Union, which has faced various issues over its vaccine rollout, legislated at the time that member states can stop exports of Covid vaccines that were produced in the bloc. But this can only be applied in two instances: If a pharmaceutical firm is not fulfilling the contracts it has with the EU and if the jabs are going to countries considered non-vulnerable. Low and middle-income nations, as well as neighboring countries, are exempted from these restrictions.

These restrictions were used for the first time last week when Italy stopped a shipment of AstraZeneca jabs from going to Australia.

However, the EU has said that it has not blocked any exports of vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, given that these firms have so far respected their commitments with the EU.

"I've long argued that the post-Brexit U.K.-EU relationship would be difficult, but even I'm surprised how far and fast it has sunk," Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at Eurasia Group, said Wednesday via Twitter.

What else is going on?

In parallel, the EU and the U.K. are also at odds over their post-Brexit arrangements.

The U.K. announced it was extending the grace periods on Irish Sea border checks — a commitment made to the EU during the negotiations to leave the bloc and which should have been completed by the end of March. Westminster has now given U.K. businesses until October to prepare for new custom checks.

The EU has complained this move was not discussed with them in advance and is now preparing legal action against the U.K. government.

Pfizer vaccine appears effective against some variants, studies say
Pfizer vaccine appears effective against some variants, studies say