EU vaccines disaster shreds Commission’s credibility

Dr Oliver Hartwich
9 February, 2021

Do you remember Jacques Santer? If you do, it is probably because Monsieur Santer was the first President of the European Commission to resign from office.

That was in 1999. Though Santer had little if anything to do with the misconduct of some of his fellow commissioners, he accepted political responsibility and stepped down along with his entire Commission.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the current President of the European Commission has not quit yet. Nor does Ursula von der Leyen appear to even contemplate this step.

Unlike Santer, von der Leyen is directly involved in a scandal. And, as is so often the case with political scandals, it is her management of the affair making matters much worse.

The basic story is quickly told. The 27 member states of the European Union had agreed to pool their procurement of Covid-19 vaccines and tasked von der Leyen’s Commission. The Commission did not secure enough doses for a quick rollout. As a result, Europe now trails countries like Israel, the UK and the US.

From a New Zealand perspective, perhaps that does not sound too scandalous. This country, too, had been promised to be “at the front of the queue” for the vaccine. Now New Zealand is not.

However, differences abound between what is happening on these shores and in the European Union.

For a start, with companies like BioNTech and Curevac, there are biotech firms domiciled in the EU, while Pfizer has one of its vaccine factories in Belgium.

The vaccination rollout is also more urgent for Europe than it is here. As of late January, the EU’s members had counted 19.7 million cases of Covid-19 and almost half a million related deaths. Many European nations are going through their second of third periods of lockdown.

Given this background, one would have expected the European Union to use its combined financial and political power to secure as many vaccine doses from as many suppliers as fast as they can deliver. For an organisation that has just given itself a Euro 750 billion Covid recovery fund, money did not appear to be an issue.

But then the European Commission bungled it.

What happened is difficult to reconstruct in detail, not least because the EU is never the most transparent of organisations. But the picture that has by now emerged is clear. Instead of going hard and early into the vaccine procurement, the Commission allowed the negotiations to drag over months.

The Commission apparently prioritised price over early access, and then it needed to coordinate with its 27 members at every step of the way.

No wonder Israel, the US and the UK were faster in getting substantial deals from the pharmaceutical companies. Israel, for example, reciprocated guarantees for early deliveries with access to medical data from the vaccine rollout – an attractive proposition for the manufacturers. The US and UK, meanwhile, paid more per dose but in return secured enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over.

The result is a vaccination rollout across the EU so slow it would take years at current rates to vaccinate the whole EU population. According to a popular online calculator, at the present vaccination rate, 25-year-old Germans will have to wait until March 2023 to receive their first dose.

There is no other way of putting it, but the experiment of tasking the EU with the vaccine procurement has failed miserably.

Not that it was a bad idea from the start. At the beginning of the pandemic, individual EU members had stopped intra-European trade in medical equipment. The EU witnessed ugly outbursts of nationalism back then – the opposite of the lofty ideals of European integration.

To prevent a rerun of such developments, it was understandable why national governments sought a European solution. Just imagine the political damage to the European project if, say, France and Germany had outcompeted smaller and less influential EU members. It could have delivered a fatal blow to the EU.

However, that fatal blow has now come from the EU itself. And it is not just the mismanagement of the procurement process, which is the issue. It is the way the European Commission and its President Ursula von der Leyen are dealing with the fallout.

For many weeks, it looked as if von der Leyen had disappeared from the face of the earth. She was nowhere to be seen when the whole of Europe wanted to know what had happened to the promised vaccines.

Then the Commission attacked AstraZeneca, accusing it of not honouring its delivery obligations. It is an ongoing legal dispute and so one should reserve judgment. However, it was more than a little clumsy for the EU to release its redacted contract with AstraZeneca – when a simple function in Acrobat Reader could then reveal the redacted passages.

As the pressure became too much for von der Leyen, the Commission decided to stop vaccine exports from the EU. In doing so, it closed the Northern Irish border. It was only after the UK and Republic of Ireland governments protested (they had not even been consulted) that the Commission backtracked apologetically. So much for the EU as the guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

As if Brexiteers needed another example to demonstrate how justified their suspicion of the the bungling bureaucracy EU has always been, von der Leyen delivered that too. In an interview, she explained that the UK’s faster rollout was due to smaller Britain being a “speedboat” compared to the “tanker” that is the EU. Nigel Farage would not have put it differently, but it is astonishing for the EU Commission President to use such arguments.

Finally, von der Leyen also gave anti-vaxxers new ammunition when defending the EU’s slow speed. “With a new vaccine, you inject a biologically active substance in a healthy person,” she said. “So that's an enormous responsibility.” Though no-one would disagree with this statement, other regulatory agencies had approved vaccines much earlier. Is von der Leyen suggesting these national agencies were putting their people at risk?

After all these bungles, von der Leyen and her Commission are politically damaged. Their credibility, not least vis-à-vis the UK and Ireland, is gone. Their reputation for competent management is torn to shreds.

If Santer’s resignation set a benchmark for political responsibility at the EU, then it is surprising von der Leyen is still the Commission’s President. But we may wonder for how much longer.

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