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Vaccine bad blood troubles EU’s Africa reset

Vaccine bad blood troubles EU’s Africa reset

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The EU was keen to mend battered relations with its southern neighbor this week. Instead, leaders ended up talking about two of their least favorite topics: Vladimir Putin and intellectual property for vaccines.

The gathering of all EU leaders and 40 African heads of state and government — plus 11 more represented by senior ministers — was billed as a “reset” in EU-Africa relations. A plan from EU leaders to pivot Europe’s attention southwards had been blown badly off course in recent months by the pandemic and a series of missteps. Brussels is keen to tempt Africa away from Chinese influence, promising up to €150 billion in funding via its Global Gateway initiative.

Tensions over Russia’s troop build-up on the borders of Ukraine had threatened to divert attention away from the summit entirely, but leaders were keen to demonstrate the importance of the EU-Africa dialogue given that the landmark summit had already been delayed by 16 months.

“The European Union wants to be Africa’s partner of choice. This is basically the summary of the summit,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Friday afternoon. But African leaders came to Brussels with a different wish list, demanding movement on intellectual property rights for vaccines so that the continent can produce its own life-saving jabs rather than relying on handouts. 

EU leaders saw the demand coming, but resistance from key quarters such as Germany and the European Commission to share coronavirus vaccine technology made a deal impossible.

Instead, both sides kicked the can down the road. African leaders left Brussels with the promise of a compromise from the EU by the spring — 18 months since the proposal was first made. 

The final declaration doesn’t mention the waiver. Instead, it pledges that the EU and African Union will commit to engage on “intellectual property related aspects.” 

Standing in between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said pointedly that, “governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines should ensure that we approve the TRIPS [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] waiver as we’ve put forward.” 

But in closing remarks to leaders, von der Leyen said a compromise would not be reached on a Friday afternoon. Instead, she proposed a spring deadline for an “end to the discussion.” The plan is for the AU and EU commissions to meet alongside World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo Iweala in Brussels. 

“We had a very good, intensive, constructive discussion on the question of [a] TRIPS waiver and compulsory licensing,” said von der Leyen. “We share the same goal. We have different ways to reach that goal — there must be a bridge between those two ways.” 

The flurry of announcements around the summit on vaccines manufacturing and broader health sovereignty highlighted the EU’s ambition to bring concrete solutions to the African Union’s key demand — better preparation for the next pandemic. 

While the announcements were welcomed by African leaders, campaigners highlighted a missed opportunity. “This is what the [intellectual property] waiver is — it’s an indication that Europe is aligning with the long-term strategic interests of Africa,” said ONE Campaign’s Africa Executive Director Edwin Ikhuoria. If the EU can’t meet that demand, it will be Europe’s loss, he said.

“I don’t think we should be thinking about any of this as being a kind of quick fix, we’re not going to suddenly resolve the massive health inequalities in the world … but we need to get on a pathway to doing so,” said Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund and former chief executive of Standard Chartered. “And that requires a shift in the dialogue.” 

It’s clear that civil society hasn’t seen any shift.

As the summit concluded, Oxfam called the EU’s refusal to consider a waiver “an insult,” with EU leaders making a “song and dance” about the importance of their relationship with the African continent, while siding with pharmaceutical companies.

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