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WHAT’S NEW(S) – 26/03/2021

Écrit par sur 26 mars 2021

EU-China relations and another vaccine scandal

“What a difference three months make” wrote Stuart Lau in Politico when the EU-China relations soured this week after the country launched a sanctions attack on the EU. December last year, Europe’s leaders still hurried to reach an agreement with the Chinese president, facilitating EU investments in one of the world’s fastest growing markets. Why did tensions suddenly escalate?

Besides this unexpected battle, this week’s front’s pages were filled with news about a third wave reaching Europe, and yet another AstraZeneca related scandal, when Italian authorities discovered 29M hidden vaccine doses.

You’ll find the script below :

EU-China relations soured this week after the country launched a sanctions attack on the EU. Why did tensions suddenly escalate ? What was the explanation of the press ?

Well, it all started when the EU placed four Chinese officials and Xinjiang’s regional security bureau on a sanction list for their involvement in abuses against the Uighurs. Even though the EU has taken a less confrontational stance compared to the US, China immediately fought back, triggering what Politico calls a ‘diplomatic storm’. It imposed counter-sanctions on Members of the European Parliament, the Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, national parliaments, and top European academics. According to Dutch newspaper NRC, “China now has to fight on two fronts”, something it would have preferred to avoid by seducing the EU to move in the direction of China, away from the United States. A strategy that did not turn out to be successful. Deutsche Welle highlighted it was the first time since 1989 that the EU issued sanctions against China. Even though China’s counterattack was strong, the EU was not impressed by the threats, according to Der Spiegel, indicating that China’s strategy of intimidation has not worked.

And what’s next? Could the diplomatic storm turn into a conflict ?

Well, according to Guillermo Abril in Spanish newspaper El País “This is a step with unpredictable diplomatic consequences.” In the same line, Jaume Masdeu pointed in La Vanguardia to the risk of a clash between the EU and Peking and Moscow. “Towards a new cold war” was the headline of his article. Der Spiegel cited German foreign minister Heiko Maas, who raises the prospect for further sanctions, while the EU will continue to apply its human rights sanction regime “very consistently” in the future. “This was not the last case” he warned. On a softer note, Michel Kerres and Garrie van Pixteren stated in NRC that the “road to rapprochement is at the very least blocked”. They also cited Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok who stated that we should still aim for cooperation, where possible. According to EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell, quoted by Politico – criticised for his soft stance on Russia – the decision “has created a new atmosphere, for sure, a new situation”.

But besides this unexpected battle, this week’s front’s pages were filled with upsetting news about a third wave reaching Europe, and another AstraZeneca related scandal. What happened ?

That’s right. Wednesday morning Marco Bresolin published in the journal La Stampa that the pharma company hid 29 million doses of vaccines in a filling facility close to Rome. According to The New York Times, “the presence of so many doses raised suspicions that the pharmaceutical company was trying to find a way to export them to Britain or elsewhere”. Carlo Martuscelli, Politico, quotes the director-general of the Commission’s health and food safety department, Sandra Gallina, who said on Tuesday that she “wasn’t aware of any AstraZeneca doses leaving the bloc after one export request for Australia was denied”. The company argued that 13 million doses were destined for low-income countries and the remaining 16 million doses would be sent to the EU after quality controls.

And it was just the same day that EU decided to announce new vaccine export restrictions, wasn’t it ?

Yes. Wednesday was the day chosen by the EU commission to unveil its new export restriction mechanism. “While sources refuse to pronounce the words “export ban”, it may ultimately be used as such,” wrote Nacho Alarcon in El Confidencial. With this new mechanism, any shipment would be assessed on the destination country’s rate of vaccinations and vaccine exports. Which for Politico means that the EU moves toward a six-week vaccine export cut. Dave Keating writes that “EU leaders are trying to stop vaccine nationalism. If the UK and US agree to start exporting vaccines, all talk of EU export bans will stop.” However, the press on the other side of the channel didn’t quite like the new mechanism. The Telegraph complained “Brussels targets the UK with new Covid vaccine export ban rules”, while Daniel Boffey wrote in The Guardian that “Britain has been singled out for failing to export Covid vaccines to the EU.”

Will this likely end up in an export war ?

That’s unlikely to happen. Wednesday evening the EU and the UK government issued a joint statement saying that “Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all”. 

Erik Ruiz Martín & Nadine Vermeulen

© European Union, 2021 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photographer: Carlos Costa

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