**Adds comments by the European Commission.
Thirteen member states on Wednesday (6 January) urged the European Commission to support the Eastern Partnership countries in their efforts to obtain affordable and fair access to the COVID-19 vaccines, according to a joint letter seen by EURACTIV.
In their joint letter, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden demand that the EU “go beyond current initiatives” and “facilitate access to the vaccine to another important part of the European neighbourhood, such as the Eastern Partnership”.
Not a single country from “Old Europe” joined, including the EU founding members, or Portugal, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the Union.
Born under the Czech Presidency in 2009 on the initiative of Poland and Sweden, the Eastern Partnership gets a boost only when EU countries from the East include it in their priorities while they exercise the Presidency.
Signatories stressed that they ‘strongly support’ efforts by member states and the Commission to share the vaccines from the allocated contracts with the EU’s closest neighbours, such as the Western Balkans.
“At the same time, we believe that the EU has to go beyond the current initiatives and give similar attention and support to other EU neighbours – the countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) – if they wish so,” they wrote.
“We believe that our borders will not be safe if we do not extend our support,” the letter stated.
The signatories pointed out that the EU’s Eastern partners “on numerous occasions expressed their appreciation for the EU’s COVID-related assistance and pleaded for facilitated access to the vaccine”.
According to them, such assistance could thus be given through the joint “Team Europe” initiative, under which a working group is leading consultations on vaccine donation to Western Balkan countries, including support from EU instruments.
Western Balkan countries; Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – home to some 20 million people – have struggled to get access to COVID-19 vaccines from multiple companies and programs and will lag far behind the EU-27’s efforts to reach herd immunity by quickly vaccinating a large number of their people.
Most are still waiting for their first vaccines to arrive, with no firm timeline for the start of their national vaccination programmes.
Many Balkan countries are pinning their hopes on COVAX, a global vaccine procurement agency set up by the World Health Organization and global charity groups to address rising inequities of vaccine distribution, but distribution might not start before spring.
In this context, the letter’s signatories call on the Commission “to quickly develop a similar support mechanism”, especially in the context of the upcoming EaP summit planned for the first half of 2021.
There would be particular “need to send a strong and coordinated message in the strategic value of the EaP”, of which vaccine support could be “an important element” and a way to “increase the visibility of the geopolitical Commission and the EU as a whole”, the joint letter concluded.
A Commission spokesperson on Wednesday confirmed the reception of the letter and confirmed that the EU executive “is in talks with partner countries”, but did not specify whether an Eastern Partnership country has specifically asked for support.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev]