BRUSSELS: Relations between the European Union and recently departed Britain took another diplomatic dip on Wednesday when the EU envoy in London was summoned to explain comments that Britain had issued a vaccine export ban.
The United Kingdom was so irate about Tuesday's comments from European Council President Charles Michel that Britain had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines," that it called in the ambassador for a morning meeting.
A British government statement said that it “has not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”
The spat comes against a background that the COVID-19 vaccination drive in Britain is seen as a huge success while that in the 27-nation bloc has been a major failure. The United Kingdom has given about 35% of its adults a vaccine shot while the EU is further back with 9.5%.
Already uneasy bedfellows during Britain’s 47 years of EU membership, thing got progressively worse since the 2016 referendum when the United Kingdom voted to leave the bloc. After acrimonious departure talks, the split became official last year, but both sides then started fighting over a trade agreement.
A deal was reached on Christmas Eve but still need to be approved by the European Parliament. In the meantime, both sides are fighting from anything over the diplomatic status of the EU in London to the import-export regime between both sides.
The EU is considering taking legal action over the U.K. not respecting the withdrawal agreement that underpins the Brexit divorce. Britain, meanwhile, has refused to grant the EU’s first-ever ambassador to the country full diplomatic status. London says the EU is an organization, rather than a country.
The EU immediately latched on to that issue too since it said the ambassador couldn't make the Wednesday morning meeting because of the fight over his status. Instead, the EU sent a lower-ranking envoy.
Michel, however, refused to fully back down from his comments and insisted any ban could come in many guises. “Different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines,” he tweeted. “Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency & increased exports, to EU and third countries.”
Peter Liese, a German member of the European Parliament and one of the main parliamentary experts on the issue, said Wednesday that even if the United States has its own ban, “even worse is the case in the U.K. because we know that significant amounts of the AstraZeneca vaccine went from the continent to the U.K."
He claimed that “for example, from the plant in Dessau IDT Biologika in Dessau, Germany, and still the company is not ready to give vaccine that is produced in the U.K. to supply the European Union.” The AstraZeneca company has denied it has syphoned off vaccines that were meant for the EU to any other destination.