Given the global challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the international partnerships required to face them, Ugo Astuto, the EU Ambassador to India, spoke in an interview about the EU’s civil protection mechanism providing help to India, what lessons can be learn from the EU regarding Covid management, and whether the TRIPS waiver can provide a relevant opportunity during the crisis. Excerpts:
Q: First of all, congratulations and gratitude for the much-needed aid that had and has been pouring from the 27-nation European Union.
A: Thank you very much. We are trying to reciprocate and to help as much as we can, just like India helped us in the past few months when it exported the medic events and vaccines all around the world. We have set in motion what we call European civil protection mechanism, a mechanism to coordinate help from all of the 27 member states in case of need.
Q: There have been funds that have been allocated separately that have been provided to the WTO to go ahead and help India. In the grants format there’s another set of funds that have been segregated. Please tell us more about them.
A: It’s a coordination mechanism. So, this is the civil protection authorities of the 27 member states coming together and seeing how best they can pull the capacities and resources in order to avoid duplication and optimise support, and the mechanism itself can help with logistics and funding of transport. So far we have had the support in kind coming from member states for an amount of around 100 million euros which makes it probably one of the largest operations so far. We have had flights coming and landing in Delhi for the past week or so from Romania, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy. Now we see more coming from the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and Spain. This is a very robust and massive contribution from a number of member states and as we speak others are joining in. The European Commission has also mobilised 2.2 million euros in emergency funding and to respond to Covid, for instance, to strengthen testing capacity. But that’s separate to European civil protection mechanisms.
Q: At the recently held summit between India and the EU, the French President came out in support of India and said that India does not require lectures when it comes to the vaccination programme and the help that it has provided to various nations. What is the message that the EU would like to give to other nations?
A: As you say, at the Leaders’ Summit, we were on the same page, where all 27 member states recognised the extraordinary effort made by Indians in the past few months in exporting vaccines. And I can say that the same has been done with the European Union. We started from the same proposition here that we want the response to this global crisis to be based on solidarity and the European Union has exported almost as many doses as it has used domestically so we believe it’s important that we follow the same example and allow the export of vaccines and not disrupt supply chains.
Q: What lessons could be learned by India in view of all the programmes and vaccination drives being carried forth in the EU?
A: Well, I don’t know whether there are lessons to be learnt. I think we are learning by doing all this together in the international community, facing the successive ways of the virus in the European Union. Europe was in a pretty bad situation until recently. Now it’s the time of India, unfortunately. So we are all, unfortunately, facing unforeseen circumstances. In the EU, we took important decisions at the very outset to procure the vaccines together. I think that was a turning point in our reaction and you could ensure that the response when it came to the procurement of vaccines was cohesive and coherent. You could negotiate good terms with the pharma company. We procured from a number of potential suppliers. We have run into some difficulties with one supplier but others have come up. At this stage, I can say that the roll-out of the vaccines all over the 27 member states is proceeding smoothly.
Q: In the wake of China facing a lot of criticism from a number of European nations, the US and Asian nations, could there be an opportunity lurking here for India to be an important source point for the 5G roll-out in the future for the EU?
A: As open societies and democracies we start from the same starting point from the same assumptions because we want the digital transition to be taking place in an environment which is competitive, which fosters innovation but also that respects our democratic setting, human rights and individual freedoms, privacy. So, we want the digital transition to take place in a secure context. So, the challenges are very similar that we face in Europe and India. That’s why we believe that the conversations around these challenges are particularly open to us. When it comes to data protection, India is in the process of passing its own set of regulations. In Europe, we did a couple of years ago, which is the first of its kind, so inevitably it’s sort of a parameter and has set some criteria which is of interest also to India on the security of networks. The roll-out of 5G is something we are both looking into in the EU and in India and we are both concerned about the security of this network. In the EU, we have set up a toolkit meant to establish objective criteria to identify secure providers which do not pose a risk to the security of our network and the privacy of our citizens. These criteria are of some interest to India and it’s a topical subject that we have already touched on without Indian interlocutors. The digital transition has a number of other aspects of interest, the development of artificial intelligence, for instance. The commonality of the challenges and the intention to face them is challenging. Starting from a human-centric vision, we want a digital transition which meets the expectations and needs of our citizens.
Q: Recently, the issue of the intellectual property waiver, which has been proposed by India and South Africa and gotten cognizance from the US; what is the stand of the EU on this?
A: These are important topics to discuss and we are ready to discuss them but we should also be aware of the fact that these are topics for the short-term or even for the immediate time. What we should do is to not lose sight of the urgency. As quickly as possible, I will ensure that these boxes are fairly distributed around the globe. The EU has exported vaccines for around 200 million dollars. India has also been a major exporter of vaccines. It’s important that other players follow this example and allow the export of vaccines. We need to increase production and support the vaccination roll-out internationally. That’s why the EU has been, since the beginning, a strong supporter and leading voice behind the creation of COVAX, which is meant for all those who need vaccines, irrespective of where they live. We are one of the major contributors, with 2.2 billion. In short, the priority now is to ramp up production of vaccines and make them available to all those in need.
Q: Do you think the TRIPS waiver is going to help developing nations, including India, ramp up the production of vaccines and other allied medical treatments?
A: In our view, that’s not the key matter. What we try to do is to ramp up production and help the international community roll-out vaccines, which is universal because we are all in this together. So we need to have vaccinations all around the world, not just in one region or another. So we definitely believe that’s a major objective for the international community to pursue.
Q: Why has the US already gone ahead and showcased its support for the waiver? The EU has raised objections, demanding the US administration to lift off the duties on the number of medical exports that it brings about in the entire world. Your comment.
A: It’s a matter of priorities. What is most necessary is to ramp up production and we believe that unimpeded supply chains are one of the key factors now.
Q: Before I let you go, Ambassador, one message that you would like to give to Indians and the entire mankind fighting this menace?
A: It is a global challenge and the only way to address this is to act together.