European Union leaders met on Thursday to discuss a coordinated path out of the COVID-19 pandemic as infections surge again in many of their countries, seeking agreement on how to ramp up supplies of vaccines after a feeble start to inoculation.
Ahead of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron spelt out the frustration over vaccine rollouts that are far behind those of Britain and the United States, acknowledging that European leaders had been too timid.
As of March 23, Britain had administered nearly 46 vaccines for every 100 people, whereas the 27-nation bloc it left last year had administered 13.8 shots per 100 people, according to public data compiled by Our World In Data website.
Europe's painfully slow rollout has led to a quarrel with Britain, which has imported at least 11 million doses made in the EU. Britain says it did a better job negotiating with manufacturers and arranging supply chains. The EU says it should share more.
The EU's executive unveiled plans on Wednesday to tighten oversight of vaccine exports that would allow greater scope to block shipments to countries with higher inoculation rates.
"This is a very targeted measure in order to create a negotiation leverage to reach some kind of a settlement between the UK and the EU," the director of trade think tank ECIPE Hosuk Lee-Makiyama said.
But he warned that actually imposing controls could backfire on the bloc.
"By doing this short term priority, by trying to seize these shipments and trying to provide to your own citizens first, what are you actually achieving? What can other people do against you?" he said.
Despite the row, Brussels and London sought to cool their tensions on Wednesday, declaring in a joint statement that they were "working on specific steps we can take ... to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens".
The EU is not united on the European Commission's proposals on vaccine exports, and several countries - including Belgium the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark - have reservations.
Although the Commission's plan was be discussed at the summit, which got underway by video-conference at 1200 GMT, it was not likely to be explicitly endorsed by the leaders.
A draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters said on vaccines that leaders would stress "the importance of ... export authorisations", and reaffirm that vaccine producers must be respect contractual delivery deadlines.