Global Europe Brief: New frontiers of vaccine diplomacy

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The global geopolitical picture is taking an interesting turn: China and Russia are using coronavirus vaccines to expand their influence while the US, battling with the ghosts of Donald Trump’s chaotic pandemic policies, is on the sidelines.

With China’s help, Serbia has overtaken the EU in its vaccine rollout. And with this, China and Russia, already eyeing for some time the EU’s neighbours as the new battleground for vaccine diplomacy, move beyond.

Hungary may become the first EU country to start vaccinating its citizens with the Russian vaccine, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said this week it could do so as early as next week, adding that a Chinese vaccine was also due soon.

The Hungarian authority recently granted limited marketing authorisation to both the Russian Sputnik V and Chinese Sinopharm jabs in record time.

No surprise then that this tempted French President Emmanuel Macron to warn that Beijing’s early “diplomatic successes” in distributing vaccines to other countries could be seen as “a little bit humiliating for us as (Western) leaders”.

A slap in the face of an EU that wants to be a geopolitical actor but seems unable to secure enough vaccines for its citizens.

And it’s true, after the EU’s shortcomings over China’s mask diplomacy in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, this would present yet another geopolitical faultline running through the bloc.

German health experts, too, have said they are optimistic that the Russian COVID-19 vaccine will be approved for use in the EU.

Many EU diplomats fear that EU approval of the Russian jab, Sputnik V, would be a major geopolitical win for President Vladimir Putin, at a time when the threat of a new batch of EU sanctions hangs over Moscow for the poisoning and detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

It’s true that European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen urged Russia and China to “show all the data” if they want their vaccines to be approved in the EU.

But although scepticism still prevails, it seems to be slowly waning. Will pragmatism win in the end?


‘PROVOCATIVE CHOREOGRAPHY’. On his trip to Moscow, EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell told his hosts that their treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny represented ‘a low point’ in ties, as his case had added a new irritant to the strained relations between Russia and the West. The expectation for the controversial diplomatic visit had been low, but to add insult to injury, Borrell’s visit was overshadowed by what some critics called provocative choreography, as Navalny appeared in a glass cage in a Moscow courtroom answering new charges.

Many in Brussels and beyond had described his visit as ill-timed and inappropriate, although he had insisted that maintaining contacts with Moscow was the right strategy for the EU.

MERCOSUR DEAL. Portugal and Argentina, which hold the presidencies of the EU Council and Mercosur, respectively, have agreed to make progress on the outstanding issues for the entry into force of the EU-Mercosur agreement, Argentina’s government has announced. However,


TROOP FREEZE. All plans related to the Trump administration’s troop withdrawal from Germany have been put on on hold until new Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin will review the move, US European Command chief General Tod Wolters said this week. The move comes as Biden repeatedly said he is critical of Trump’s treatment of European allies and pledged a fresh start for transatlantic relations under his presidency.

TRIO PROGRESS. Portugal’s defence minister, João Gomes Cravinho, held a videoconference with his German counterpart and the Slovenian secretary of state this week to take stock of “developments in European defence policy”. The trio said it wants to deepen the dialogue on the Strategic Compass, “based on the first EU threat analysis”, to identify concrete steps to move the process forward and ensure the participation of all 27 member states.

FRONTEX MEET. Portugal will organise a meeting with the board of directors and the executive director of Frontex to ensure “European law” and “established rules” are respected. This comes after the EU’s border guard agency has been accused of having prevented migrants from entering Europe on several occasions between March and August 2020.


MERKEL-MACRON TALKS. French leader Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart Angela Merkel hold talks on Friday on European defence and the early moves of US President Biden to rekindle transatlantic ties. Macron is a leading proponent of increased European autonomy – which means boosting EU military capacities in particular – while Germany has traditionally been happy to rely on the US and the NATO military alliance for security.

The meeting also comes a week after EU leaders had extended the invitation to cooperate more closely but also warned that four years of the Trump administration had changed the nature of transatlantic ties. It is likely that the Franco-German tandem wants to get ahead of those and align their, in recent times more divergent, line in foreign policy matters (see Nord Stream 2).

The talks will cover all issues associated with “the strengthening of European sovereignty”, a French presidency official said, meaning slow-moving common defence projects such as a new fighter jet and a tank will be on the table.


FRENCH ‘NON’. Some 59% of French citizens do not see the prospect of the Western Balkans countries’ EU accession in a positive light, a new study has found. But it also revealed increasing mistrust toward the bloc overall.

KOSOVO ISSUE(S). The EU voiced regret at Kosovo’s decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem, made as part of a broader deal brokered by the previous US administration, saying it “diverges” the tiny Balkan country from the EU position.



Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as we kick off into the new year.

  • European Parliament plenary session
    | Mo-Thu, 8-11 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
    EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell expected to brief MEPs about his visit to Russia, other foreign policy items: Myanmar coup and EU-Ukraine Association Agreement

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