Vaccine Versus Geopolitics: EU Should Prioritize Its Neighbours Amid Global Scramble for Jabs

Written by | Monday, January 25th, 2021

MEPs yesterday (21 January) called on the EU not forget about the ‚struggling‘ Western Balkan countries in the Coronavirus vaccine rollout and help them cope with COVID-19 pandemic, as EU leaders were holding a virtual summit discussing the ongoing health crisis. EU leaders at the meeting debated the production and delivery of vaccines for the European market and equal access to Coronavirus vaccines to poor countries. There has been criticism of the slow rollout in many EU countries. In their letter to the European Commission, the 11 MEPs said that despite the EU starting a rollout of the 2.3 billion doses of vaccines it has so far ordered, countries at Europe’s doorstep, some of them having recorded the continent‘s highest levels of COVID-19 cases per capita, are still struggling to secure vaccination of the population.
The EU has so far secured 600 million coronavirus vaccine jabs, with more to follow as other vaccine candidates such as the one from Moderna are approved. The bloc currently has enough doses in the pipeline to immunise some 80% of its population, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But while wealthy non-EU countries, such as the UK and Switzerland, have secured large numbers of jabs for their populations in bilateral deals with manufacturers, those on the lower-income scale in the European neighbourhood are lagging behind. Brussels has pledged to help out but the COVAX scheme, to which all of the Western Balkan countries have signed up, at best provides just 20% immunisation coverage across a country’s population by the end of the year. COVAX is a global programme to get vaccinations to all countries regardless of their ability to pay.
But it will be Russia and China that are posed to reap geopolitical gain via vaccine diplomacy, if Europe does not prioritize its neighbourhood, and especially the Western Balkan region. Take Serbia, for example, with three different jabs already approved by the country’s Medicines Agency (Pfizer/BioNTech, Sputnik V and Sinopharm) and two more awaiting approval (Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca), its citizens are even allowed to choose which one they want. The “nationality” of the vaccine became a subject of debate among Serbs, especially because Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm are not approved in the EU. But while all of the Western Balkan countries were waiting to get at least some vaccines from the COVAX scheme, a plane from China landed in Belgrade with a million doses on board – and approved for use only two days later.
With so few vaccines having arrived from the West, Russian and Chinese ones are now almost the only option for most in Serbia. The country’s friendly relations with Moscow and Beijing seem to have paid off. The other countries on the EU’s doorsteps are voicing their frustration. Most notably, Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, whose country managed to obtain just a few hundred jabs bilaterally, has accused the EU of “only thinking about themselves”.

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