The European Union’s top official expressed regret for creating a row with Britain last month when the bloc briefly considered applying an emergency restriction on exports of COVID-19 vaccines also to the U.K.’s Northern Ireland.
Amid a dispute with Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca, the EU introduced tighter rules on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations that rely on European factories for its vaccines, such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
To implement its plan, EU officials thought about also introducing controls on exports to Northern Ireland from Ireland, which is part of the EU.
That would have created a hard border. And since the Brexit deal guarantees that goods flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland to protect the Irish peace process, the plans sparked concerns and outrage in Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Speaking at the European Parliament on Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was sorry for the confusion.
“The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision,” von der Leyen said. “And I deeply regret that. But in the end we got it right.”
Canada, which gets the bulk of its vaccines from factories in Europe, was at one point fearful the threat of export controls would impact its vaccine deliveries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured Canadians he had von der Leyen’s word that Canada would not be impacted, should the EU go forward with the controls.
Numerous shipments have arrived in Canada from Pfizer and Moderna since the threat, signalling no impact.
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EU ‘late’ to rollout
The EU chief went on to say that the bloc’s much-criticized vaccine rollout could be partly blamed on the EU being over-optimistic, over-confident and plainly “late.”
Von der Leyen defended the EU’s overall approach of trying to beat the pandemic with a unified vaccine plan for its 27 nations, even if she admitted mistakes in the strategy to quickly obtain sufficient vaccines for its 447 million citizens.
“We are still not where we want to be. We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps we were too confident that, what we ordered, would actually be delivered on time,” von der Leyen told EU plenary.
Despite weeks of stinging criticism as the EU’s vaccine campaign failed to gain momentum compared to the Britain, Israel and the United States, the three main parties in the legislature stuck with von der Leyen’s approach of moving forward with all member states together.
“The key decisions were right,” said Manfred Weber, the leader of the Christian Democrat European People’s Party.
The Socialists and Democrats party leader Iratxe Garcia said “Fiasco, catastrophe, disaster: they ring very true to our citizens,” but added her party will stick with von der Leyen on the bloc moving together. “Criticism is necessary but with a constructive spirit.”
Von der Leyen’s assessment came as the bloc’s death toll passed a landmark of 500,000, a stunning statistic in less than a year that fundamentally challenges the bloc’s vaunted welfare standards and health care capabilities.
It came as the bloc was fighting off the remnants of a second surge of COVID-19 that has kept communities from Portugal to Finland under all kinds of lockdown, curfews and restrictions as authorities race to vaccinate as many people as possible.
The last official weekly figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control are only expected on Thursday but Johns Hopkins University produced a daily tally showing how the mark stood at 500,809 on Wednesday.
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In comparison, the United States, with a population of 330 million, leads the world per nation with more than 468,000 deaths.
Von der Leyen stuck with her promise to have 70% of the EU’s adult population vaccinated by the end of summer and blamed big pharmaceutical companies for not keeping vaccine production up with scientific advances.
“Indeed, the industry has to match the groundbreaking pace of science,” von der Leyen said. “We fully understand that difficulties will arise in the mass production of vaccines. But Europe has invested billions of euros in capacities in advance, and we urged the member states to plan the vaccine rollout. So now we all need predictability.”
— with Global News files
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