How Denmark and Austria saw differing reactions to vaccine deal with Israel

The three countries will launch “a research and development fund” and begin “joint efforts for common production of future vaccines”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Jerusalem news conference alongside his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Denmark and Austria are both EU members, and the Israeli partnership has been notable for being an apparent break with relying solely on the European Union for securing vaccines.

READ ALSO: Austria and Denmark chided by EU ally over Israel vaccine plan

Kurz, the Conservative Austrian chancellor, had announced the alliance on Monday, saying the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was “too slow in approving vaccines”, leaving the bloc vulnerable to supply bottlenecks at pharmaceutical companies.

Frederiksen, who leads Denmark’s Social Democratic minority government, has been less forthright in citing EU shortcomings as a motive for the deal, but did say that Denmark must “make sure that we have enough vaccines in a year’s time, and in two, three, five and ten years”.

Despite critiquing the bloc’s vaccination approval process, Kurz sought to quell concerns about the Israel trip, telling Austrian media on Friday that the project “was not directed against the EU”.

Kurz lavished praise on the Israeli leader, saying Austria was simply trying to take advantage of Israel’s experience in “defeating the virus”.

“The world admires you because of the vaccination successes. You were the first country to decide to defeat the virus,” he told Netanyahu.

“Together we must now prepare for how things will continue after the summer, after the current vaccination program.”

Kurz said other EU countries were welcome to join the framework, with Czech Prime Minster Andrej Babiš set to arrive in Israel soon.

Kurz’s efforts to speed up Austria’s lagging vaccination process have been largely praised, although he faced criticism for his comments on the EU.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton welcomed the alliance.

“I’m absolutely not afraid that this is directed against anyone – it’s just about improving global cooperation,” Breton told Politico.

European MP Peter Liese, from the centre-right European People’s Party of which Kurz is also a member, said Kurz had the chance last Autumn to play a key role in the EU’s vaccination approval – a process the Austrian chancellor has now criticised.

“I’m pretty upset with my EPP friend Kurz,” Liese told German magazine world.

“It is not fair to criticise the EU now. Austria took a leading role in the (development of the EU vaccine steering group)”.

Sonja Hammerschmid, from the centre-left Social Democrats, criticised Kurz’s “staging tour” as a PR exercise, saying much more money than the planned €50 million needed to be pledged if the programme was to make a difference.

“While in Austria the failures of professional crisis management are visible to everyone, the Chancellor flew abroad and went on a production tour” she said.

“If you don’t add at least a zero to it (the figure), you can’t take the sum seriously for a second in the area of ​​pharmaceutical production and clinical research.”

In Denmark, Frederiksen will have to fend off criticism from both the left and right for her decision to join the partnership, as well as for the visit to Israel itself.

Frederiksen’s government, ostensibly centre-left, is propped up by smaller left-wing parties but regularly works with the right wing to pass legislation, primarily on immigration. Much of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in its early stages, has also received broad parliamentary backing.

The leader of the opposition, centre-right Liberal party, Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, called the deal with Israel and Austria “inconcrete”.

Ellemann-Jensen also criticised Frederiksen for prioritising a trip to Israel over domestic talks related to the gradual lifting of Denmark’s Covid-19 restrictions and said the meeting with Kurz and Netanyahu could have taken place digitally.

“We have something urgent going on at home. The prime minister has chosen to turn her back to it. That’s something I have little understanding for,” he told the national broadcaster DR.

The sentiment was echoed by the centre-left Social Liberal party, whose foreign policy spokesperson Martin Lidegaard said he “couldn’t comprehend” the need to travel to Israel in person.

“She could have achieved the same things with a virtual meeting without getting herself mixed up in the Israeli election campaign, without sending a negative signal to the rest of Europe and without delaying negotiations about reopening Denmark,” Lidegaard said.

Another ally, the left-wing Red Green Alliance, said it was “deeply astonished” by “what the prime minister is running around and doing in Israel. This is not something she has agreed with parliamentary parties,” parliamentary group leader Peder Hvelplund said to DR.

A common criticism of Frederiksen’s government during the pandemic has been that it has sometimes failed to offer enough transparency over its decision-making process.

READ ALSO: Danish prime minister rejects criticism over first lockdown announcement

Hvelplund additionally called Israel a “controversial choice of partner”.

“This is a country which is not ensuring vaccination of parts of the population in the occupied areas which Israel has occupied in the West Bank and Gaza,” he argued.

“At the same time, an agreement was also made (by Israel) with Pfizer in which health data of the public is systematically delivered to Pfizer as a condition for being able to vaccinate,” he said.

For Frederiksen, the imagery of her proactively trying to boost Denmark’s vaccination programme — by teaming up with a country known for the rapidity of its own roll-out — may outweigh all of those criticisms.

She defended the trip during the Jerusalem press conference and called the deal “completely necessary” for Denmark.

As at Friday, March 5th, 6.5 percent of adults in Austria have received one vaccination dose – with 3.1 percent receiving both doses. In Denmark, those figures are 8.5 and 3.3 percent respectively.

Austria and Denmark on Friday both followed France and Germany in recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine for over 65s, reversing a previous decision not to approve the jab for seniors.

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