The Brussels-London is clearly broke up, and AstraZeneca is responsible for their (second) divorce

di Juline Lefevre Lancelot - 28 Febbraio 2021

  from Paris, France

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00175

Only a month after the end of the long-lasting negotiation on Brexit, which ended on the 24th December 2020, tensions are already resuming between London and Brussels in the race for vaccines against covid. Yet, on the 30th December 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the United Kingdom “with this bill, shall be a friendly neighbor — the best friend and ally the EU could have” (G. Parker, S. Payne, J. Cameron, 2020). However, the covid-19 vaccine “made in Britain” (C.Ducourtieux, 2021), designed by Oxford University, produced by the Anglo-Swedish giant AstraZeneca is a controversial subject in the European Union. 

In fact, on the one hand, leaving the EU represents “a new chapter in [the UK] national story”, as B. Johnson claimed (G. Parker, S. Payne, J. Cameron, 2020). Besides, the Prime Minister has assured that this deal was not a rupture but a “resolution”, which means that it was meant to keep a good relationship with the EU. On the other hand, the sanitary context and the urge for covid vaccines rekindled tensions, since the birth of this new relationship. With the AstraZeneca vaccine, the British see a triumph of their national genius, whereas European countries see it as an exacerbated patriotism (N. Herzberg, C. Ducourtieux, C. Aeberhardt, 2021). Why does this vaccine stimulate that much tension – and how can we assess that this dispute could potentially be a symbolic representation of the UK/EU relationship after their (first) divorce? 


Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine: a controversial scientific breakthrough?

The unprecedented alliance between Oxford and the Anglo-Swedish firm surprises some European countries by gathering scientists that are not specialized in medicine and a pharmaceutical group without a great vaccine experience. That is the reason why the formula created debates within the European scientific sphere. 

On the one hand, this new vaccine costs less than the others, which makes it the most competitive: “it costs less than a cup of coffee”, about $3-4 per shot (R. Robbins, B. Mueller, 2020). Whereas the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have to be stored and transported at a cold temperature, up to -70 degrees celsius, the Oxford one only needs regular medical refrigerators, making it a more viable and less cost-intensive option, above all for tropical countries. 

AstraZeneca’s encouraging results on a coronavirus vaccine looked promising. Indeed, it appeared to be from 62% to 90% effective, with an average efficacy of 70%  (R. Robbins, B. Mueller, 2020). However, the strength of this vaccine depended on the different doses that were dispensed. In November 2020, the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company revealed a mistake in the dosage given to some study participants: the best results were shown by the participants that received half a dose, and then a second complete dose  (R. Robbins, B. Mueller, 2020). So, questions arise about the efficiency of the formula, due to the fact that participants who received two complete doses only showed a 62% efficiency. This fact explains why there were doubts about its efficiency and reliability. 

However, the vaccine was authorized by the European Union on Friday, January 29th, one month after the UK, and today it is the center of a new conflict between Brussels and London.

The success of the “made in Britain” vaccination campaign  

The European Union’s weakness in the management of the supply of covid vaccines was highlighted recently, while the United Kingdom is showing great efficiency in vaccinating its population. As a matter of fact, on February the 14th, the United Kingdom has already vaccinated more than 14 million citizens (, whereas EU member states have all in all vaccinated more than 19 million (ecdc.europa). Thereby, it seems that the Union’s vaccination program is less effective and longer, which is sometimes qualified as “chaotic” according to some experts (T. Wheeldon, 2021). On the contrary, the UK’s vaccination program is described as going “full-pane” (T. Wheeldon, 2021). 

In addition, the UK appears to be more organized than the European Union that already had difficulties getting Moderna and Pzizer’s vaccines. The reason is that the country purchased Pfizer’s vaccine as early as July 2020 (T. Wheeldon, 2021), months before its neighbor from the other side of the English Channel. Some say that this failure in the coronavirus crisis management shows that the European Commission is not as performant as we may think. As political editor, Adrian Wooldridge illustrates: “The European Commission is very strong in negotiating trade agreements, among other things, but it has no particular competence for vaccines or contract negotiations, which were traditionally delegated to member states.”

Unfortunately, “the European Health Union”, described by Ursula Von der Leyen in September 2020, where each member state was free to carry out its own vaccination program, is not as effective as she had hoped. As a result, it seems to comfort the reason for Brexit.

“The best promotion campaign” for Brexit: Increasing the post-Brexit nationalism

The contrast between these two supply campaigns led to the best promotion campaign pro Brexit (B. Schulz, 2021), according to Die Zeit, a pro-European weekly. EU’s struggles comfort the idea that the UK left “a sclerotic institution” (B. Schulz, 2021). Besides, analysts accuse the European Commission of a lack of expertise and strategic misjudgments (T. Wheeldon, 2021)

Thus, this leads to a geopolitical effect: the EU ends up looking like a failure while the country that left the union looks like a leader (T. Wheeldon, 2021). At the international level, this contrast is strongly symbolic. 

The conservatives pro-Brexit reinforce this idea. According to them, their nation has been able to benefit from early access to Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines, due to its freeing of EU legislation. “We were able to approve the vaccine so quickly because we left the EU”, a member of the Cabinet said on Twitter. 

Yet, Brexit is not the reason why the United Kingdom had access to vaccines in advance. June Raine, the Chief Executive for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom revealed that the UK “was able to authorize the supply of this vaccine using provisions of European law, which apply until January 1st”. She also explains that the UK was able to use Regulation 174, an EU provision introduced in national law that allows for the authorization of medicine in response to a public health need (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, 2020).

The “friendly alliance” already jeopardized?

On January 22nd, one week before its vaccine was authorized by the European Medicines Agency, AstraZeneca declared that they were not capable to deliver to the EU the expected doses, which means 75% less at the European level for this semester while maintaining the UK’s total order. In consequence, tensions arise again. 

Stella Kyriades, the European Commissioner for Health, denounced unequal treatment. In order to try and force the company to respect their engagement, she revealed the contents of the signed contract. Given that the European Union helped the company financially, the unequal treatment is seen as unfair: “The EU pre-financed [AstraZeneca’s] vaccine development and production, and now wants a return on its investment”, declared the Health Commissioner (B. Gaillard, 2021). 

Messages of friendship are no longer relevant between Brussels and London, as Head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen threatened to activate Article 16 of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland last week, in order to compel the Swedish-British laboratory and limit its deliveries of doses to the United Kingdom. Indeed, this article can re-establish the border and therefore the customs inspection. Boris Johnson vigorously denounced this attempt to infringe a clause in the trade agreement signed in December 2020 in the framework of Brexit (B. Gaillard, 2021). 

After all, the European Commission decided not to activate article 16, and Ursula von der Leyen tried to calm the tensions with the United Kingdom: She “deeply regretted”, and “mistakes were made”. Moreover, she admitted that the EU was late to authorize this vaccine, which may be the source of the delayed deliveries (M. De La Baune, J. Deutsch, 2021).

The end of a particular relationship:  it is time to move on    

To sum up, after a tense period of debate, the relationship between Brussels and London is once again sowing the seeds of conflict, because of the vaccine story. This new friendship, already weakened by a complicated divorce, is again put to the test. It is then legitimate to doubt the good cooperation in their future relations.

The conflict about AstraZeneca’s vaccine unveils a relationship undertoned by a lot more political issues that we might have thought about. It is also a matter of pride for both of them. On the one hand, the UK symbolizes its regained sovereignty with the success of its vaccinal program. As Boris Johnson declared multiple times “ We’re going to do better.” (K. Adler, 2021).

On the other hand, the image of the EU is damaged. Firstly with the withdrawal of one of its member states, and then by the unequal efficiency between its vaccinal program and one of its former members. The United Kingdom is, therefore, seen as being one step ahead in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Bibliography (A – H)

De La Baume, M., and Deutsch, J., 2021. Von der Leyen: ‘Mistakes were made’ on vaccine export ban but ‘we got it right’. [online] Available at: <>.

Désintox. 2020. Non, ce n’est pas grâce au Brexit que le Royaume-Uni peut bénéficier en avance du vaccin contre la Covid-19. [online] Available at: <>.

Ducourtieux, C. and Malingre, V., 2021. Comment les vaccins ravivent les tensions entre Bruxelles et Londres. [online] Available at: <>.

Gaillard, B., 2021. Vaccination contre le Covid-19 en Europe : où en est-on ?. [online] Available at: <>.

Herzberg, N. and Ducourtieux, C., 2021. Le vaccin d’Oxford et AstraZeneca, une aventure scientifique marquée par les controverses. [online] Available at: <>.

Références (H – Z)

Parker, G., Payne, S., Cameron-Chileshe, J., and Khan, M., 2020. Boris Johnson hails ‘new chapter’ in EU relations as Brexit deal approved. [online] Available at: <>.

Parker, J., 2021. Brexit: New era for UK as it completes separation from European Union. [online] BBC News. Available at: <>.

Raine, J., 2020. June Raine: How we backed a COVID-19 vaccine before rest of the West. [online] TheTimes. Available at: <> .

Schulz, B., 2021. Die beste Werbung für den Brexit. [online] Available at: <>.

Wheeldon, T., 2021. Les difficultés de la campagne de vaccination dans l’UE, “la meilleure des pubs” pour le Brexit ?. [online] Available at: <és-de-la-campagne-de-vaccination-dans-l-ue-la-meilleure-des-pubs-pour-le-brexit>.



Autore dell’articolo*: Juline Lefevre-Lancelot, studentessa di Political Science, Law, Economics and Interntional Relations at Sciences Po Lille. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 


Nota della redazione del Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

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