On Tuesday, Prime Minister Janez Janša attended a working meeting of some of the European Prime Ministers, where they discussed the solidarity and equal access to vaccines against COVID-19. After the conference, which was also attended by the Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, Bulgarian Prime Minister Bojko Borisov, Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjanis Karinš (via online video) and the Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (via online video), Janša emphasised that it was in everyone’s interest for the European Commission’s contracts with the vaccine manufacturers to be made public: “I do not think that there are any secrets here that should be kept hidden.”
The leaders’ discussions focused on equal access to and supply of vaccines against COVID-19, which they also outlined in a letter to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel. In the letter, the leaders also called upon the European Council President to discuss the equal supply of vaccines to all EU member states with all EU leaders as soon as possible.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pointed out that this is not about finding someone to blame. Regarding the unequal distribution of vaccines, he stressed that the fact is that a problem exists, and it needs to be solved. Despite the fact that the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also stated that each country should receive a number of vaccines according to the number of inhabitants, the reality, said Kurz, is completely different. “Unequal distribution of vaccines and the vaccination rate that is directly related to this are causing tensions in the European Union.”
Slovenia is still above the EU average in vaccination
Prime Minister Janez Janša thanked the Austrian Chancellor for organising the meeting and for the initiative, which he understands as a timely warning before the European Union finds itself in a situation where, for example, in one half of the countries, 30 percent of the population would be vaccinated against COVID-19, and in the other half, 60 percent. “This would lead to a completely unnecessary political crisis at a time when the EU will have to deal with the exit strategy and how to mitigate and correct the consequences of the epidemic in all member states,” the Prime Minister stated.
He pointed out that “a corrective mechanism is necessary to return the distribution of vaccines to the starting point, that is, to the decision taken by the European Council to distribute vaccines pro-rata or according to the population of individual EU member states. No technical agreement, steering committee or technical procedure can alter a decision made in the interest of everyone in the European Union,” the Prime Minister pointed out.
He went on to say that Slovenia is currently above the European average in terms of vaccination coverage, “but if the mechanism will not work, this could change quickly. We are aware that we are not an island, and that no EU member state will be able to live normally, even if it achieves a higher level of protection against COVID-19 if countries in the neighbourhood do not achieve this protection too, because the virus does not respect borders, and therefore, a return to life as we knew it before the pandemic will not be possible,” the Prime Minister said.
It is in everyone’s interest that the contracts are public
“The problem we discussed today has become very evident, primarily due to delays in the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines. Many countries have ordered large quantities of this vaccine because it was identified as the most promising in the second half of last year and would be approved first. However, the distribution and supply of this vaccine has not been in line with the forecasts and the contract, and from this perspective, we have asked ourselves how good these contracts that were signed actually are,” said the Prime Minister, and added a personal appeal to the European Commission – all member states are a part of the Commission – to make the content of the contracts public.
“I don’t think that there is anything that needs to be kept secret, and it is in everyone’s interest that the contracts are made public. If there is anything wrong with those contracts which could be the reason for the delay in distributing the vaccine, let it be corrected,” urged Prime Minister Janša, warning that this must be done in a timely manner. “I still believe that the decision to go into joint procurement of vaccines was a good one,” he said, adding that we have the European Union “to deal with situations in which we are stronger together than if we acted individually, but the principles and agreements must be respected.”
The Prime Minister concluded his address by saying that Slovenia would take over the presidency of the EU Council in the second half of the year and that we were preparing to build the European Union’s recovery from the pandemic in a more optimistic atmosphere. Prime Minister Janša reiterated that with today’s talks and appeal, we wish to avoid a potential new political crisis, “which will certainly arise if, in June, we find ourselves in a situation where half of the EU member states have a level of vaccination that will stop the epidemic, but the other half will not have achieved this. We welcome all the efforts of the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council to rectify this situation and believe that our warning is timely,” added Prime Minister Janša.
The differences between countries, in terms of vaccination, are obvious
“We have always believed in European solidarity,” said the Bulgarian Prime Minister Bojko Borisov, adding that things are clearly different in practice. “States have also been urged not to buy any Russian or Chinese vaccines,” he added critically. He believes that Ursula von der Leyen and Michel did a good job but that there was an unfair distribution in the chain. “While some countries will reach herd immunity in May, others are still waiting for the vaccines.” The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš pointed out that it was everyone’s goal to vaccinate 70 percent of the EU population by summer. However, this is not currently guaranteed. Babiš announced a possible video conference with Von der Leyen in the coming days to make sure that corrections in the distribution of vaccines will happen.
Kurz: “The EU must stand together and solve the problem”
“We need to find a solution as the European Union. The Commission’s original proposal was to supply vaccines according to the population of each Member State,” said Chancellor Kurz, adding that no one could defend the inequality. “If the differences increase or remain large, this will become a problem,” Kurz believes. “If the difference is between three or six percent of the people being vaccinated, that does not bother anyone. But when it comes to the difference between 40 or 80 percent, this is a big difference – in terms of the economy, tourism, and much more. We must remain united,” he said, according to the Austrian Kurier, and reiterated: “The EU must stand together and solve the problem.”
The Slovenian Prime Minister also answered questions from journalists, pointing out that the prime ministers had met because there are challenges that individual countries can manage better on their own and those that can be better managed together. “When it comes to the pandemic, it means that the disease is active all over the world, and it would be best to tackle it together, but the world is not yet sufficiently organised to make this possible. It is right that the European Union is seeking common solutions through joint orders for vaccines, but there have been errors in implementation, and these errors need to be corrected,” the Prime Minister said.
When asked how the correction mechanism can work without creating new tensions, the answer, according to the Prime Minister, is the additional 14 million doses of the vaccine already provided by the European Commission, “and this is a step in the right direction.” He also said that, through joint efforts, the European Union could provide additional supplies of at least 50 to 60 million doses by the end of June, “and these quantities could offset the principle of sharing so that at the end of June, all Europeans can expect the epidemic to be successfully halted and a normal summer will be ahead of us.”
“There are countries such as Israel that are doing better and will undoubtedly provide vaccinations sooner, but there is only one Israel. Israel has also been properly organised, just in time, and the real question for the EU Member States is whether an individual country could, if it were to pursue its own path, be more successful. The answer is yes, but the EU, as a total, would certainly be less successful at the end of this path. We will work on estimates and balances when the epidemic is defeated,” the Prime Minister added, concluding that the problem pointed out by the leaders today, which was first pointed out by the Austria Chancellor, could be solved without major concrete consequences. “If we only became aware of it in two months, it could have escalated into a not so insignificant political crisis in Europe,” Prime Minister Janša believes.