French president Emmanuel Macron has declared the "end of naivety" as the European Union moved to prioritise unmet deliveries of vaccines over exports to the rest of the world.
“It’s the end of naivety,” Mr Macron told journalists after the 27 leaders met over video conference. “I support the fact that we must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don’t respect their commitments with Europeans.”
In the meeting, European Union leaders expressed their support for tightening controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports to allow permits to be refused for batches to be sent to countries that have a higher vaccination rate in their population, or that are not exporting to the EU in turn.
Figures released on Thursday showed that 77 million vaccines had been exported from the EU, the lion’s share of 21 million of them to Britain, while the bloc received 88 million doses for its population of 447 million people.
Severe shortfalls in contracted deliveries from pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca – which now aims to deliver just 100 million doses by June instead of a promised 300 million – have slowed vaccine rollouts in the bloc, and the company is the primary focus of the new controls as it has delivered only a fraction of promised doses so far.
Ireland was among the countries to express reservations about the step out of concerns that if export permits were refused it could trigger retaliatory action, and ultimately affect companies that are meeting their deliveries such as Pfizer and Moderna.
But speaking afterwards, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the export system was “important” tool to ensure companies deliver.
“In the context of companies that fail to fulfil their contracts with the EU, the leverage has to be there to ensure their contracts are fulfilled but also that the EU can have certain safety nets in respect of making sure it has sufficient vaccines for its own population,” Mr Martin said.
The Dutch and Belgian leaders expressed hopes that the tool would be effective in increasing deliveries to the EU without ever having to be used.
"If it needs to be used, and hopefully it will not be used, then also the broader consequences should be taken into account," Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“Global production and supply chains need to be taken into account . . . Not hampering the global supply chains which are also in our interest.”
Talks are ongoing between British and EU officials over their interconnected vaccine supply chains and whether a deal is possible over AstraZeneca doses, as a supply squeeze on the vaccine hits with India set to tighten controls on exports in response to rising domestic infections.
In focus is the output of a factory in the Netherlands in Leiden. EU officials say that AstraZeneca has not explained why it waited until this week to apply for European Medicines Agency authorisation for the output of the Leiden factory, but there are suspicions that this was a tactic to juggle competing international orders, as its production could not be delivered to the EU without the permit.
Britain and the European Commission issued a joint statement on the eve of the summit declaring they would seek to work together to keep supply chains open, and Mr Rutte said he was optimistic of a deal as officials are expected to meet on Saturday.
“I think a landing spot is possible here in the spirit of win-win,” Mr Rutte told journalists. “I am cautiously optimistic that the issue between the EU the UK and AstraZeneca can be solved.”
Within the EU, there is a debate over the fate of 10 million extra Pfizer vaccines that are set for delivery.
Some member states have argued that these should not be divided on a pro-rata basis as is usual, but that a greater share should go to countries that have a lower vaccination rate because they initially turned down Pfizer and Moderna doses and are worse affected by AstraZeneca shortfalls.
Bulgaria, Latvia, and Croatia are the worst affected and have given out just 5.4, 5.4 and 9.4 doses per 100 people respectively compared with an EU average of 13.6, according to figures circulated to leaders on Thursday.
An agreement could not be reached on the issue however and it has been referred back to diplomats for discussion, with the insistence of Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurz that his country should be among those to get extra cited as an obstacle to agreement.
Austria has given out 14.6 jabs per 100 according to the figures – above the EU average.