Tensions between Austria and Brussels are on course to escalate as the EU considers plans to distribute extra doses of Covid-19 vaccines to countries most in need that will exclude Vienna.
EU diplomats told the Financial Times that Brussels officials are working on distributing 10m additional vaccine doses to a handful of member states that are struggling to contain the spread of the virus.
This reallocation would not apportion extra doses to Austria, whose chancellor Sebastian Kurz has demanded a “correction” mechanism for more vaccines for his country after railing against the EU’s joint procurement strategy.
“Kurz will not be getting one extra jab,” said an EU official familiar with the plan, pointing out that the Austrian chancellor’s broadsides against Brussels have caused dismay among other member states.
Austria has led the charge against what it claims is an unfair and opaque EU vaccine distribution methodology that has led to shortages in the country. Last week Kurz issued a joint call for Brussels to change the distribution, along with leaders from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Latvia.
But other member states have rebuffed Austrian demands, noting that all countries had the right to purchase vaccines from the major companies using a pro-rata system based on population size. The European Commission has pointed out that some countries — including Austria — instead opted to buy more or less of each jab purchased by Brussels, leaving unused vaccines available for other governments to buy up.
To respond to the emergency needs of countries struggling to contain the virus, EU officials are working on plans to distribute around a third of an additional 10m doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer jab, brought forward from the third quarter to the second quarter. The plan is backed by Germany.
Diplomats said Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria and Croatia were the most likely candidates for additional jabs, although the 30 per cent figure has not yet been agreed. Some countries, notably Austria and Latvia, are pushing for substantially more. The remaining portion of the 10m would be distributed on a pro-rata basis.
An Austrian government official involved in the negotiations said there were several proposals being discussed. “We are actively working on a solution which is acceptable for all member states,” the official told the FT, pointing out that unanimity will be required for any correction mechanism to be accepted. “The [German] proposal is not an adequate basis for discussion . . . it does not have support in Austrian government circles.”
A move to exclude Austria from the list — which will need to be approved by all member states — will inflame tensions between Kurz and his fellow EU leaders ahead of a videoconference summit on Thursday. If no agreement on redistribution can be reached, the 10m will be sent to member states using the pro-rata system. As it stands, Austria’s vaccination rate is 13 per 100 people, just above an EU average of 12 per 100.
Diplomats said the spat with Austria needed to be resolved before the summit or it risked derailing discussions among leaders, who are wrestling with how to accelerate national vaccination programmes amid rising cases in some countries and an ongoing supply dispute with AstraZeneca.
Brussels officials have chided the Austrian chancellor for using the EU as a scapegoat and playing “domestic politics” over vaccines. German chancellor Angela Merkel did not see Kurz during his visit to Berlin last week. “The EU is being used as part of an Austrian blame game,” said one official.