How did EU governments decide to oppose a global measure that could boost production of COVID vaccines and medicines for the global south? You won’t get the slightest hint from official EU sources. But leaked documents reveal that the Commission and member states see the real problem as a mere PR issue of how to deflect criticism. Given the pandemic, their position seems indefensible.
Corporate Europe Observatory
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To almost anyone, to the public, that would be where the story ended – with no insight into how the EU’s decision to oppose the India/ South Africa proposal was made, nor into what arguments were considered.
But then sometimes, with a stroke of luck, documents are leaked. And in this case, documents from a German Ministry ended up with Corporate Europe Observatory (unfortunately they cannot be made public). According to those documents, the proposed India/ South Africa waiver was discussed on three occasions in the Trade Policy Committee.
While the Council does not produce minutes of these meetings, the German delegation does produce notes, for its own internal use and these revealing minutes from meetings in January and February 2021 show there is full member state support for the Commission’s rejection of the waiver. A report from mid-January states that “according to the Commission, the existing flexibility under the TRIPS agreement must be used”. This (wrong-headed) view, that no reform or waiver is required, met with no resistance at any point during the three meetings.
What worried several member states at the meeting on 8 January 2021 (Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden) is communication. They urged the Commission to communicate 'constructively' with NGOs on the matter, surely predicting the external criticism likely to follow the EU’s position. On a related note, at the following meeting on 22 January, the Commission is praised by the Netherlands for its engagement with members of the European Parliament, while Italy urged “more active external communication”.
At the last meeting covered by the documents, the EU has come under fire from its export restrictions on vaccines. That helped spark a discussion on tactics – considerations as to what the EU’s proposed alternative to a waiver should look like. In the end, only the Netherlands commented on the issue: there is no need for a change of position, but there are still challenges on communication. Alternatives, the representative remarked, can be found in the area of "voluntary licensing".