European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that the quest for COVID-19 vaccines is “not a competition between Europeans, Russians, Chinese and Americans”, but a much more “serious” issue, as the official slammed having a “confrontational mindset” amid the pandemic.
Speaking to students and experts at the Warwick Economics Summit over a video call on Saturday, the EU official said that the memory of a world of “two blocs” was still vivid in her imagination.
"The superpowers were fighting to expand or maintain their sphere of influence. Well, this world is long gone", von der Leyen said initially. But then she switched to present-day affairs and compared the Cold War mentality with the race for COVID-19 jabs.
According to the EU commission chief, “some countries” were now making the vaccine development into a competition between them – not a fight against the overarching coronavirus enemy.
"Think for instance about COVID-19 vaccines. Some countries see the quest for a vaccine as a race amongst global powers, like the space race in the 1960s”, von der Leyen added.
"This is an illusion. The only race is against the virus, and the virus is spreading faster than ever before".
But despite denouncing the Cold War approach, the official still did not forget to point a finger at China as the bloc's “systemic rival”.
"Let me be very clear, although China and the European Union are cooperating when it comes to fighting climate change, although we are competing in the economic field, we are systemic rivals”, the commission president said.
"When it comes to society, individual rights and the role of governments, Europe will continue to call out human rights abuses, to push for change”, she added, citing a call “for democracy” from Hong Kong protesters: “We believe that every human being is entitled to the same fundamental rights”.
Ursula von der Leyen ‘Needs to Go’ over COVID Vaccine Row
UK Conservative MP Bob Seely said that von der Leyen’s remarks in relation to the COVID shots were “sensible”, but the politician pointed out that he hopes “that means no more aggressive or petulant bullying tactics over the Northern Irish border or over threats to block exports”.
His spiky remark comes in light of the fact that the EU commission president was the one to greenlight 29 January proposal to introduce border checks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent the “leakage” of coronavirus vaccines into the UK through the Irish “backdoor”. The decision, which was to be implemented under Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, was made without any formal notification being sent to London, Dublin, or Brussels – something that left Irish and British officials flabbergasted and outraged.
According to reports from Brussels, the decision was made by von der Leyen virtually unilaterally, with no support from top advisers, who expressed concerns that the ill-fated bid would provoke a scandal on the island of Ireland.
“She needs to go. Now. She told f*****g no-one. After four years of tedious skull-duggery over the backstop. Surely the commission could have thought of the optics?” one EU diplomat anonymously fumed to The Telegraph.
Following a backlash, the EU quickly went on to backtrack on the hasty proposal.
Even before the move, Ursula von der Leyen was heavily criticised for poor management of the vaccination programme in the EU amid shortages and delays. The bloc is severely lagging behind London in its inoculation efforts, as more than 10 million people have already been vaccinated in the UK.
But the commission president has blamed the delays on pharmaceutical companies - primarily the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca - calling on the producer to fulfil its contractual obligations with the bloc, even if it meant sending doses from British factories. AstraZeneca has maintained that its contract with London was separate and that it was not planning to breach it.
After that, Brussels announced that it would start controlling the exports of COVID jabs produced in the EU - something that prompted the World Health Organisation to denounce "vaccine nationalism".