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Building on vaccine success, EU promises to donate more Covid vaccines

BRUSSELS – As Europeans try to lock in the gains made by vaccination campaigns, the European Union pledged on Wednesday to strengthen its preparedness for future health crises and to increase donations of coronavirus vaccines to low-income countries and intermediate.

In her annual State of the European Union address, Ursula von der Leyen, chairwoman of the bloc’s executive body, the European Commission, hailed the successful vaccination of its citizens after a difficult start. But she called global vaccinations the bloc’s most urgent priority, warning that wide gaps between rich and developing countries could lead to a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“With less than 1% of global doses administered in low-income countries, the scale of the injustice and the level of urgency are evident,” Ms von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. east of France.

In a high-profile speech, Ms von der Leyen addressed issues such as the climate emergency, the crisis in Afghanistan, economic recovery and technological competition, praising the European Union’s successes during the pandemic while acknowledging its inconsistencies and its imperfections.

Ms von der Leyen’s confident tone, alternating between English, French and German, contrasted sharply with her speech last year, when new cases of Covid-19 ravaged the block and vaccines were in the air. months.

“Last year it was in crisis mode,” said Camino Mortera-Martínez, senior researcher at the Center for European Reform, a think tank in Brussels. “This year she said we have to look to the future.”

Despite initial missteps and criticism of the vaccine buying process by the European Commission, which negotiated doses on behalf of the 27 EU countries, more than 70% of the bloc’s adult population has now been fully vaccinated .

To prepare for any future pandemic, she announced the creation of a new biomedical agency, the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, which she said would aim to “ensure that no virus will ever turn a local epidemic again. into a global pandemic ”.

However, it was unclear how the agency would operate in practice, as health policy remains a prerogative of national governments and the European Commission has had limited influence in the past. The bloc also has two existing health agencies, the European Medicines Agency and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

Ms von der Leyen also explained how disappointed Europe had been with the chaotic evacuation of American and European troops from Afghanistan, calling it a symptom of an era marked by “regional rivalries and major powers refocusing their pay attention to each other “.

Afghanistan’s failure raised “troubling questions” for NATO, she added, saying Europe should move faster to develop a long-proposed “European defense union”, with better coordination of forces and increased intelligence sharing among member states, which resisted sharing. sensitive data in the past.

Ms von der Leyen also announced an EU defense summit next year, during the bloc’s six-month French presidency starting in January, and a joint statement with NATO before the end of the year. . A Europe better able to defend itself has been a constant theme of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who is due for re-election in April.

Ms von der Leyen also reiterated her previous pledges that the European Union would increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by 100 million euros, or around 118 million dollars, and said it would be part of a program. broader support for the country which would combine various European efforts.

She did not mention widespread fears in Europe of a new migration crisis, saying only that the bloc “will continue to support Afghans in neighboring countries”, presumably to encourage them to stay there.

Ms von der Leyen also said that while a € 750 billion coronavirus recovery fund adopted last year allowed the eurozone to overtake the United States and China in terms of growth in the last quarter, Europe had to do more to secure its economic future. For example, she said the block needs to reduce its reliance on semiconductors, which are mostly made in Asia, and proposed a European chip law to coordinate production and sourcing for strategic and business reasons.

Focusing on the need for greater solidarity between member countries, Ms von der Leyen waited until the end of her speech to raise the controversial issue of respect for the rule of law. The sensitive subject pitted the European Commission against Poland and Hungary over judicial independence, minority rights and media freedom.

But she did not single out these eastern countries, instead speaking of “worrying developments in some member states”. The bloc’s administration hardened its stance this month, asking the EU’s highest court to impose financial sanctions on Poland.

Ms von der Leyen underlined the importance of dialogue on thorny issues with member states, which some critics consider too complacent a position given the stakes.

“This committee has made it clear that Europe should stand up for its values, but more outward than inward, which I find problematic,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. “It may sound hypocritical.”

And even when it comes to vaccines, EU countries have so far failed to deliver on their promises to help immunize poorer countries. Although Ms von der Leyen pledged to deliver 200 million more doses by mid-2022, in addition to the 250 million doses already pledged by the end of the year, countries in the bloc had failed given that 21 million doses in early September, according to Commission figures.

Instead, the bloc focused on exporting vaccines – around 700 million – at a time when most countries that produced vaccines were hoarding them. Yet most of those doses were sent to richer countries, like Britain, Japan, and South Korea.

“The gap between the EU’s fine rhetoric on stopping the Covid-19 pandemic and its actions is embarrassingly,” said Dr Christos Christou, international president of Doctors Without Borders.

Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based research institution, said that despite good intentions, there were significant logistical challenges in sending doses in arms to poorer countries.

“The same story is unfolding all over the world: no one is safe until everyone is safe,” he said. “In a way, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in Chad or Bulgaria.

Steven erlanger contributed reports.

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