Europe’s post-COVID strategy: Stay close to allies and build strength at home

Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for internal market and consumer protection, industry, research and energy, addresses a news conference in Brussels, Belgium on March 17, 2021. Photo by John Thys /Pool via REUTERS.

Cooperation between the United States and the European Union (EU) to distribute vaccines globally would constitute a partnership “to save the world,” said Thierry Breton, European commissioner for internal market.

Breton spoke at the Atlantic Council’s EU-US Future Forum with Edward Luce, US national editor and columnist for the Financial Times, about the transatlantic partnership and how it factors into the mass vaccination campaigns, regulatory actions, and relations with China. “We know who is our ally: This is the US,” Breton noted at one point, “and the Chinese are considered our systemic rival.”

Below are other highlights from Breton’s remarks.

Vaccines: What went right—and wrong

  • Breton credited the quick development of COVID-19 vaccines to “cooperation between Europe and the US” because “most of the vaccines which are working today have been developed and financed thanks to European research… [but] the US has been able to put a lot of money [into] and help to accelerate the development and rollout of this research.”
  • US President Joe Biden recently backed a proposal by India and South Africa to ease World Trade Organization patent rules on COVID-19 vaccines. Breton cautioned that it would only be wise to open discussions on these patents once vaccine-producing facilities and global supply chains can keep up with ramped-up production. He also warned that a waiver on patents now could still mean another year-long delay for facilities to begin producing the vaccines. “But in between, who will bridge? Europe, and hopefully soon, the US,” he said, noting that the EU’s philosophy on developing and distributing vaccines has been “to help the world, and we have been producing both for us and for the rest of the world.”
  • Breton pinned Europe’s rocky vaccine rollout on “one thing: the contract with AstraZeneca.” He added that AstraZeneca didn’t meet first-quarter and second-quarter agreements for delivering vaccines, but that the continent is now turning a corner: “We are catching up,” Breton said, likening the experience to the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Whether “you start slow or you start quickly, at the end of the day, what is important is that we will land probably exactly at the same speed [as] others.”
  • When asked about the resiliency of supply chains after the pandemic, Luce noted that the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted supply chains for semiconductors, which has had a negative impact on Europe’s automotive industry. Breton said that the EU presently produces about 9 percent of the global supply of semiconductors but that it aims to produce about 20 percent, while the United States hopes to ramp up its production from its current level of 11 percent to 30 percent. But that will take a lot of investment, he added, a major focus of the EU’s NextGenerationEU recovery plan.

The EU’s approach to its “systemic rival

  • China’s imposition of sanctions on European officials and academics in March, in retaliation for EU sanctions against China for human-rights abuses against its Uighur minority, has cast serious doubt over the future of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment—in particular whether the pact, seven years in the making, will be ratified by the European Parliament. Breton called the agreement “not a deal” but rather “an intention, not more, not less.” He stated that “the time when the intention will transform into reality may be pretty long.”
  • When asked about the extent to which the EU should work with the Biden administration on forming a common China strategy, Breton said that he wants to “cooperate and interact much more with the US” and that “now with the new administration, there is a very strong hope that we will be able” to do that.
  • Although the EU and China previously signed a partnership on 5G, Breton said that the digital sphere is one domain in which the EU wants to expand cooperation with the United States. But he argued that “to be a good partner, you also need to have something to exchange.” He characterized the EU’s strategy on 5G as “preserving our interests” while keeping out “risky partners and suppliers.” Breton added, “we will continue to do it our own way,” with the European companies Ericsson and Nokia, “but we know extremely well who are [our] allies.” He concluded that “cooperating with the US will be a very good idea because, of course, we share the same values.”

Regulation as a path to security

  • Reflecting on the EU’s experience with vaccines, in which a US executive order to prioritize access to vaccines for Americans cut off vaccine supply from the United States, and with semiconductors, in which tense US-China relations restricted Europe’s access to semiconductors and hurt its automotive industry, Breton noted, “We need to make sure, of course, here, even with our partners, that we will be able to secure the supply in certain areas.”
  • Asked about the EU’s role as a global leader in regulation, and whether that will help or hinder its efforts to develop technology champions that can compete with US Big Tech, Breton said that the bloc’s regulatory approach “is just to make sure that we will be able to secure what is important to us” while remaining “an open continent.”

Watch the full event

Katherine Walla is the assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.

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