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COVID-19 vaccination at Newmarket Racecourse in Suffolk, UK COVID-19 vaccination at Newmarket Racecourse in Suffolk, UK 

France and Britain battle over vaccines as EU countries begin to look East

France has accused Britain of "blackmail" over its handling of coronavirus vaccine exports amid continuing tensions over supply chains. That row prompted at least one European Union member state to look to the East to get vaccines.

By Stefan J. Bos

The European Union tries to avoid a diplomatic and trade row with Britain over coronavirus vaccines, but France is getting impatient.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian didn't mince his words when asked whether the European Union had been "scammed" by sending millions of doses to Britain while its rollout stuttered.

He told France Info Radio that in his words, "We need to build a co-operative relationship, but we cannot deal this way." France wants the EU to implement stricter export controls.

The EU has blamed pharmaceutical companies - primarily AstraZeneca - for not delivering its promised doses. AstraZeneca has denied that it is failing to honor its contract.

The bloc expects to receive about 30 million AstraZeneca doses by the end of March, less than a third of what it was hoping for. But Britain's vaccination drive has so far been more successful than that of the EU's 27 member states.

Hungary hungry

That angers especially EU nation Hungary, which now has the world's highest per capita recorded coronavirus death toll globally. Authorities say more than 19,000 Hungarians have died of COVID 19 on a population of 10 million people.

That's why Hungary says it has begun rolling out Russian and Chinese vaccines besides other jabs. However, the EU's drugs agency has not yet approved the vaccines from the East.

But Zsolt Németh, the head of the Hungarian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told me that the country has no other choice.  "If we had enough vaccines from the EU, we wouldn't order Russian. But we don't have enough, unfortunately. For that reason, we are in negotiations also with the Chinese as well, not just the Russians," he told Vatican Radio. "This is not a geopolitical question for us. But it is mainly the question of health security."

People in Budapest have mixed feelings about Russian and Chinese vaccines. 

Hungary's government hopes to ease coronavirus lockdowns to partially reopen the economy after Easter once a quarter of the population is vaccinated. Other EU member states are closely following developments in Hungary as frustration mounts over import difficulties with Western vaccines. 

27 March 2021, 17:25