The Brief, powered by FACEBOOK – Franco-German vaccine trade-offs and EU-China deal

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/JOHANNA GERON]

When the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was agreed “in principle” last December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron were rather satisfied.

Their plan was to have the deal agreed upon during Germany’s EU Council presidency and ratified no later than France’s presidency in early 2022. Both EU countries were set to reap benefits from the deal.

But things have gone downhill since then.

Following pressure from all sides, the European Commission conceded in May that efforts to win approval for the CAI had effectively been “suspended”.

Although some have been desperate to play down this setback, the truth is that in recent months Europe has started taking its China policy seriously, tit-for-tat sanctions have soured relations, and Merkel will be out of the office soon.

Some insiders say there has been more to Franco-German efforts to clinch the deal than has been reported.

A diplomat told EURACTIV that French President Emmanuel Macron allegedly asked Merkel to put the authorisation of AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BionNTech COVID-19 vaccines on hold until the French pharma giant Sanofi’s vaccine was ready too. In exchange, Paris would give its green light for the EU-China investment deal.

Sanofi had projected it could produce 100 million doses of vaccine in 2020 but faced a major setback in its clinical trials in early December. Sanofi’s vaccine, therefore, was not part of Europe’s solution for a quick vaccination roll-out.

Asked by EURACTIV to confirm or deny whether there had been discussion of a Franco-German deal on vaccines and the investment agreement, a German government spokesperson declined to comment.

The Élysée meanwhile firmly denied the claim, saying none of this has been part of the discussion between France and Germany.

The timeline of events, however, makes the speculation all the more interesting.

In mid-December, German Health Minister Jens Spahn, then a chancellor candidate hopeful, publicly wondered why the European Medicine’s Agency (EMA) was delaying the approval of the vaccine jointly produced by US firm Pfizer and German company BioNTech.

“All the necessary data on BioNTech is available […] The UK and US have already granted approval. An assessment of the data and approval by EMA should happen as fast as possible,” Spahn tweeted.

EMA said in emailed statements to Reuters that it was not under political pressure to be faster and declined to comment about Spahn’s remarks. The European Commission also denied exerting pressure on EMA for faster approval.

On 18 December, Reuters quoted a German government spokesman as saying there was progress in the EU-China talks and a deal by the end of the year was the goal. Three days later, on 21 December, EMA granted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine authorisation.

The next day, 22 December, the incoming Biden-Harris administration tweeted that it “would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices”.

On 30 December, the EU and China agreed an investment deal “in principle”.

Five months on, while we’re still waiting for the Biden administration to present its definitive China policy, the deal was suddenly put on hold.

History will tell whether or not the EU-China deal was linked with vaccine trade-offs. But at some point, the delay in the EU’s vaccine authorisation will surely have to be explained.

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The Roundup

The European Parliament is expected to return to its official seat in Strasbourg for a June plenary after an absence of more than a year due to Covid-19 restrictions, officials said.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva has said that he would like Portugal’s EU Presidency to be remembered as the “one that rebalanced the relationship with Asia”.

A quarter of EU citizens living in the UK do not feel they are treated equally to UK citizens, according to the first survey of EU citizens by the watchdog set to protect their rights.

A historic bill proposing the decriminalisation of abortion in Malta was tabled in parliament, a first for the Mediterranean nation.

A new regional election could help tackle a political crisis in Catalonia after separatist parties were unable to reach an agreement and form a pro-independence executive, the Spanish government has said.

Three years after the EU’s flagship GDPR data protection regulation came into force, confusion over international data transfers following the landmark Schrems II ruling is threatening to hamper new technologies and jeopardise the bloc’s digital agenda.

A senior EU official defended European Commission plans to extend the bloc’s carbon market to road transport, arguing that revenues generated could be used to offset the effects of higher fuel prices on the poorest in society.

Views are the author’s

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