EU countries rebuff Austria’s bid for more vaccines

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In a display of what might be called qualified solidarity, most EU countries rebuffed a tantrum over coronavirus vaccine distribution led by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and agreed Thursday to supply extra doses to five nations hit hardest by the pandemic.

The decision taken by EU ambassadors effectively reaffirmed the EU’s existing population-based vaccine allocation formula, and delivered an embarrassing defeat to Kurz, as well as Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša.

Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia all refused to participate in the plan, put forward by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU, to help the hard-hit countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia.

The position taken by Babiš seemed particularly self-defeating because it resulted in the Czech Republic forfeiting some 140,000 extra doses that it would have received under the Portuguese plan because it would have qualified for extra assistance.

For Janša, whose country takes over the rotating Council presidency on July 1, it was a rather inauspicious display of apparent selfishness and unwillingness to join in the community-minded crisis management that Brussels considers to be the EU’s finest attribute.

And for Kurz, the ringleader of the effort to break the pro-rata allocation formula, it marked a failure on multiple fronts. He was unable to secure any additional vaccine doses for his country; he betrayed the needy countries that initially supported his efforts; and he undercut his own aspirations of becoming a leader of Europe’s dominant center-right political family.

One senior diplomat said that Kurz’s influence and credibility were “severely damaged” by the episode, in which the Austrian leader hijacked a European Council video summit last week to demand help for needy countries, but then refused to join in providing such help when Commission statistics showed that Austria itself was nowhere near among the worst-off. A second diplomat said that Kurz was now “persona non grata” for most member countries.

In a government statement on Thursday evening, Kurz falsely asserted that the EU had distributed vaccines unequally, and claimed credit for highlighting the alleged problem.

“Austria has drawn attention to the problem of the unequal distribution of vaccines,” he said in the statement. “It is good that this has been recognized in the EU and that the solidarity mechanism is intended to reduce this inequality in the distribution of vaccines for some severely affected countries, such as Croatia and Bulgaria.”

His statement did not mention that Austria fought the solidarity mechanism and refused to participate in it, but then claimed it was “incomprehensible” that the Czech Republic was not receiving extra doses even though it was Vienna and Prague that fought the plan that would have provided more vaccines.

Kurz said Austria was “discussing” ways to help the Czech Republic bilaterally, but made no specific commitment to do so.

Austria’s ‘own fault’

Even before the summit, Kurz had stoked a fierce fight over the allocation of vaccines, in which he tried to blame the Commission for an alleged short-changing of Austria. In fact, Kurz’s government was itself to blame for having declined to purchase its full allotment of doses under the EU’s joint vaccine procurement program.

Other countries had similarly miscalculated but it was Kurz who tried to rally other leaders by brazenly blaming Brussels for missteps made in his own capital.

“It’s not surprising to any of us who have been in opposition for a long time: Kurz generally sees the EU as a means to an end of his own political game,” said Claudia Gamon, an Austrian member of the European Parliament from the liberal Renew Europe group. “I think there is a correlation between him being in political trouble at home and using the EU as a scapegoat.”

Gamon noted that other aspects of the Commission’s vaccine strategy might fairly deserve criticism but that the Austrian government had gambled and lost by picking and choosing among the menu of vaccines and not buying its full allotted share. “It’s simply our own fault,” she said. “That’s why he’s nervous.”

As the battle intensified in recent days, Kurz was in contact with many leaders and on Thursday, there were many contacts among officials from the six countries that originally signed a letter demanding help obtaining more doses. In these contacts Vienna again insisted on trying to block the decision, two diplomats said. The opposition continued until the last moment, with the gang of three even trying to stop the decision of the others to go ahead with the redistribution proposal until Council lawyers made clear that EU countries could do as they wished with their allotment of vaccines.

“The legal service explained it was not possible because it’s not a Council decision that could be stopped. Member states are entitled to use their doses as they want,” one diplomat said.

A second senior diplomat said that Kurz had been unable to hold together his initial group of six.

“That coalition was launched by Kurz but without prior consultation with the others,” the second senior diplomat said. “And it has very soon emerged that that they didn’t share the same interests.”

“At the end, nobody could take any more Kurz — his way of doing things,” a fourth diplomat said. “His idea of solidarity à la carte proved to be unbearable for many of us,” the diplomat added. “He launched this campaign asking for more solidarity and ended it denying solidarity to the others. I believe it said it all.”

A third senior diplomat chided the three countries over their lack of solidarity: “EU solidarity is not a game of convenience. It is a commitment. Regretfully, some member states decided to choose cherry-picking and protecting narrow interests over long-term gain for the entire bloc.”

Several diplomats gave the Portuguese presidency credit for skilfully navigating the dispute.

Friends in need

At last week’s summit, heads of state and government rebuffed Kurz’s demands for a greater share of an advance delivery of 10 million vaccines, and they reaffirmed the population-based allocation method. But the leaders also tasked EU ambassadors to come up with a plan for using some of those vaccines to help the countries in greatest need.

In an effort to carry out the leaders’ instructions, the Portuguese presidency put forward a plan to distribute 7 million doses according to the existing formula, while reserving 3 million doses for six hard-hit countries, including the Czech Republic. But Vienna, Prague and Ljubljana refused.

In a strong-arm tactic that also failed, Austria at one point even threatened to block the Commission from moving forward with a broader purchase option for 100 million doses of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

Once it was clear that his demands would not be met, Kurz turned against the Portuguese plan, which would have required Austria to donate a portion of its share of the 3 million doses to the needier nations. Kurz then insisted on sticking to the pro-rata formula he had tried to dismantle, because it would give his own country more.

With Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia in opposition, the 19 other EU countries agreed to act on their own to help the neediest five nations use what was left of the 3 million doses after the opponents kept their pro-rata allotment.

In the end, the biggest loser appeared to be Babiš, who in opposing the Portuguese plan appeared to have fallen on his own syringe, so to speak.

While refusing to join the Portuguese plan gave Austria and Slovenia slightly more doses than if they had participated in the donation effort, the Czechs would have received some 140,000 “solidarity” doses under the plan. Opting out resulted in a net loss for the Czechs of 70,000 doses, diplomats said. The loss of those doses could well come back to haunt Babiš in national elections this fall.

There was no immediate explanation for Prague’s move, which seemed to be rooted in a miscalculation that Austria’s tactics would succeed.

“Babiš insists he’s not a traditional politician,” said a fourth senior diplomat. “But it’s hard to say exactly what it means in terms of negotiations and what went so wrong in Prague.”

A Czech diplomat said it was wrong to think the country had stood blindly with Kurz, and tried to spin Prague’s loss of vaccines as potentially a needier country’s gain.

“We were calling for solidarity but it didn’t come to everyone,” the diplomat said. “It’s a false perception we’re sticking to someone. We’re simply trying to get more solidarity for those who needed it. At the end, those doses that we’re not taking may end up going to those who need them even more.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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