The European Union warned Thursday that it will ban drugs firms from exporting coronavirus vaccines to the UK and other countries until they make good on their promised deliveries to the bloc.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen's stark warning -- which could hit UK-based AstraZeneca first -- came after a video summit of all 27 EU leaders and stoked fears that cross-Channel rivalry could damage global efforts to combat the pandemic.
Some leaders stressed that an embargo should be a last resort if negotiations for a better way of sharing vaccine production come up short, but von der Leyen and France's President Emmanuel Macron adopted an uncompromising tone.
"I think it is clear that first of all the company (AstraZeneca) has to catch up, has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines," von der Leyen told a news conference.
The focus of the latest row is an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government claims as part of the British vaccine supply chain.
Macron declared his firm support for the Commission's plan, declaring "an end to naivety".
"I support the idea that we should block all possible exports for as long as the labs don't respect their commitments to Europeans," he said.
The Netherlands and Belgium, centres of EU vaccine production, are skittish at talk of an embargo, fearful that disruption to global supply chains could hurt other firms' production.
"The supply chains are so intricate, they're so intertwined, so it's not automatically a good thing if this new instrument is to be applied," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, citing the example of a Belgian plant making BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines that relies on raw materials from Britain.
But Rutte also told reporters he warned Johnson that the Netherlands would enforce any EU decision to halt exports -- even as he hoped for a quick resolution.
"Luckily at least the two (sides) are talking and it seems, I think, on Saturday or soon after they could come to an agreement," Rutte told reporters.
"That would be very helpful, because we are friends, the UK and the rest of Europe, and we need each other."
London was alarmed by von der Leyen's decision this week to tighten Europe's export control mechanism to give the Commission more leeway to block exports if EU vaccine supplies are at stake.
Johnson is also concerned that a ban that extends beyond UK-based AstraZeneca's disputed supply could also block BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines produced in Belgium.
- Tempers fray -
That would imperil Britain's vaccination drive, which has so far proved more successful than those of EU member states, which have been hit by a massive shortfall in deliveries.
As tempers frayed this week, a joint statement by the British government and the commission on Wednesday said both sides were looking for ways to cooperate towards a "win-win" compromise, but no details were given.
While Britain accuses the European Union of vaccine "nationalism", von der Leyen noted that the bloc was "the region that exports the most vaccines worldwide".
She said that, since the beginning of December, companies in the EU had sent 77 million doses of Covid vaccines out of the bloc -- with an EU official noting that more than a quarter of those went to Britain.
But von der Leyen said the next three months will see overall vaccine supplies more than triple and the EU -- population 450 million -- is on track to see 70 percent of adults fully vaccinated by mid-September.
AstraZeneca is expected to deliver 30 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, a pledge already radically reduced from the 120 million doses it was initially contracted to provide.
- Vaccine war? -
Another sensitive issue is the distribution of vaccines within Europe.
A group of six smaller states led by Austria demanded more doses after they missed an earlier opportunity to secure a bigger share of costlier vaccines by betting on the cheaper -- but unreliably supplied -- AstraZeneca one.
But after the talks, Rutte said Austria does not seem in "bad shape at the moment" and member states had asked ambassadors to find a solution for harder-hit Bulgaria, Croatia and Latvia.