The EU has looked entirely impregnable since 2016, whatever you think of the benefits or restrictions of membership. The conflicts of the start of the last decade, when the rising tide of anti-EU populism and economic failures seemed to be putting unbearable strain on the integrity of the bloc, seemed like ancient history.
Despite what seemed like serious pressure, the EU never dropped its united front during the Brexit negotiations. Its red lines remained firm, on the integrity of the single market and on Ireland, while Euroscepticism generally fell across member states.
And then came coronavirus
The cracks started to show at the start of the pandemic. As the virus hit hard and early in Italy and France and Spain, people started to question the usefulness of the EU.
The organisation is not responsible for healthcare in member states, but does help coordinate cross-continent responses to major problems. In the very early days of the pandemic, that coordination was clearly lacking – and pan-Europe responses seemed to come from initiatives from individual member states.
Relevancy is one of the most important things for any international body. The EU is one of the best at constantly evolving to stay relevant.
European leaders saw the risk. By April last year, the bloc was publicising its joint PPE procurement programme – which began sourcing medical gowns in February, but only released tenders for face masks and ventilators in mid-March. This scheme was to leverage the power of collective negotiation to solve all of Europe’s problems.
The scheme did not solve all of Europe’s problems. But most of the EU did largely escape the worst case scenarios we feared in March. Although, that may have been as much to do with the impact of national lockdowns as the impact of the EU’s scheme.
After this slow start, there was a clear need for the EU to be ahead of the curve on exiting the crisis. Clearly this meant vaccines.
Technically speaking, vaccine procurement and distribution is not within the purview of the EU. Commission President, and physician, Ursula von der Leyen saw the opportunity to centralise a vaccine strategy and sell the case for the EU’s strength once and for all.
How vaccines went so wrong
If you pin a continent’s hopes on a centralised strategy, that strategy has to work. It is clear that the strategy hasn’t worked. The UK’s vaccine strategy has worked – and may be the only thing that the UK has got right. Contrasting the UK and EU’s approaches highlights best what the EU has done wrong.
You would have thought the most important priority would be securing agreements with manufacturers early. The EU did secure agreements early, but seemingly not early enough and not thoroughly enough. The EU signed deals with vaccine manufacturers after the UK did – and the EU’s AstraZeneca contract may not have been as watertight as they had hoped.
There is some debate over whether the contract relied exclusively on European made doses or not, but regardless vaccine security requires significant home-grown manufacturing. The timelines involved in creating manufacturing facilities means that major investments must also be made in production centres before anyone knows for certain that they’ll make a difference. The UK spent more money on upgrading and preparing manufacturing facilities during this period than the whole of the EU combined.
However, the actual vaccines aren’t the only thing needed for an effective vaccine strategy. The equipment to administer the vaccines is critical, and the whole plan will fall flat if there isn’t sufficient supply of the right needles. The UK started purchasing tens of millions of applicable needles six months ago, while some European countries have suffered chronic shortages.
As it became clear that EU countries were lagging behind, EU leaders started to make bizarre choices. In the UK, authorities have painstakingly put experts front and centre of the coronavirus response – often to the detriment of clarity – and have been consistent on the medical need and evidence on vaccines. As vaccines failed to arrive across the rest of Europe, some leaders bought into anti-science conspiracy.
The German health authorities briefed that the Oxford vaccine would not work on German people over the age of 65, citing no medical evidence whatsoever. The French President clearly repeated this, saying that the vaccine was almost entirely ineffective. Hours later, the European Medicines Agency approved the Oxford vaccine for everyone, including over 65s, with no caveats.
The fall out
Vaccine procurement is usually exclusively within the remit of EU member states. The whole programme was created by the EU Commission to prove the benefits that collective procurement hold. Creating a bigger bloc of buyers completely aligned on strategy should mean more vaccines and lower prices. Yet, it clearly hasn’t.
As Europe’s governments sought excuses, things really got wild. Blaming the EU is not a particularly palatable option for many of those who argue for closer integration at the best of times, let alone when they willingly signed over vaccine strategies mere months ago. Instead, many chose conspiracy – if that be on the efficacy of vaccines, or the companies that make them.
This call came to a head when the EU decided to impose export controls on vaccines, claiming without basis that others were unfairly hoarding them. Within hours, the UN’s World Health Organisation was condemning the EU’s protectionist stance on vaccines.
Export controls are always a blunt weapon. They trigger export controls elsewhere, reducing the flow of vital goods to zero which is especially bad if you live in a poor country that has no vaccine producing infrastructure.
The EU, of course, created exceptions in these hastily created controls. Russia, for example. But not the UK, who the bloc had blamed for its woes. In doing so, the EU triggered Article 16 of the Norther Ireland Protocol – creating a land border on the island of Ireland – to ensure that the UK really couldn’t purchase any vaccines.
Of course, this broke the Good Friday Agreement. How could the Republic of Ireland agree to this? It turns out, they didn’t. The EU Commission didn’t notify either the UK government or the government of EU member-state the Republic of Ireland before pulling the trigger.
Within hours, an organisation that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 had managed to trigger warnings that they would deprive the global south of vital healthcare and torn up a vital peace agreement. They had united the UK, Republic of Ireland, unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland, and the World Health Organisation in angry condemnation.
After what must have been very tense call between Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which you must assume included a fair amount of shouting, the EU backed down. With a bloody nose, the Commission claimed that legislation was provided in error and had never been intended as law.
This was a clear lie. Not only had they drafted the entire law and published it on their website, they then sent out press releases explicitly referencing to and linking to it and only ‘clarified’ hours after the UK Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach had frantically called the EU Commission president. On the face of it, it may be the biggest political lie of the decade.
Few governments or organisations will come out of the pandemic with their reputation intact. The successes we have seen in New Zealand and Taiwan have only gone to highlight how other leaders and institutions have done such a bad job, lacked the capacity and planning to cope with pressure, or – in the case of the World Health Organisation – lacked the foresight to question dictators properly.
The UK government’s litany of failures during the pandemic will not be excused by a competent vaccine roll out. The UK has seen the highest numbers of infections and deaths of any European country to date – and shockingly inconsistent government policies and failed contract tracing programmes.
Yet a this only tells half the story. A handful of European nations have done worse than the UK per capita, but these comparisons are largely irrelevant. Politics dictates that politicians will be judged on their own countries, rather than in comparison with others.
Every European country’s leaders have something to answer for. Over 80,000 people have died in France, and over 60,000 in Germany. A vaccine programme with too few vaccines will only compound the political problems these leaders and their parties will face.
Yet, every European leader has a scapegoat for this. One who convinced them to delegate their vaccine policies to them – and one who deserves a lot more blame than the pharmaceutical company making the vaccines. Guy Verhofstadt leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe from 2009 to 2019, has sharply criticised the EU's response. Ursula von der Leyen has already admitted that the EU underestimated the challenge vaccines represented, and is unlikely to be commission president for much longer given this critical, monumental failure.