Until a few weeks ago the European Union (EU) was feeling pretty good. It had handled Brexit successfully. Britain failed to divide the remaining 27 member states. Brussels used its bargaining advantage to make minimal concessions to London in the tortuously negotiated withdrawal agreement and trade deal.
The pandemic hit the EU hard. But relatively prompt lockdowns and often effective track and trace policies on the continent contrasted favourably with the chaotic and murderous responses of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
But what should have been a moment of relief—the rapid development of effective vaccines—has seen, as the Financial Times newspaper put it, “the tables rapidly turned”. “While the UK has now administered 40.5 vaccine doses per 100 people and the US 34.1, the EU has only managed 12,” it said.
The difference comes down partly to the fact that the US and Britain are states that can mobilise resources centrally in emergencies. The successful British vaccine rollout has benefitted crucially from the centralised organisation of the NHS and the dedication of its staff.
The EU is not a state, but a cartel of nation states that have pooled some of their powers. But the biggest member states call the shots.
The European Commission (EC) exploits every crisis to increase its own powers. It seized control of the vaccine procurement programme but bungled it. It was so used to dominating its region and so blinded by neoliberal ideology that it didn’t, like other governments, hustle to get vaccines.
Moreover, as economist Paul Krugman puts it, “European officials were not just risk averse, but averse to the wrong risks.
“They seemed deeply worried about the possibility that they might end up paying drug companies too much, or discover that they had laid out money for vaccines that either proved ineffective or turned out to have dangerous side effects.
“So they minimised these risks by delaying the procurement process, haggling over prices and refusing to grant liability waivers. They seemed far less worried about the risk that many Europeans might get sick or die because the vaccine rollout was too slow.”
Sluggish EU vaccinations have produced a severe political backlash. European politicians complained about the slow supply of the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine by the Anglo‑Swedish company.
This reflected the bitter hangover from Brexit. Brussels hinted that perfidious Albion had cornered an unfair share of the vaccines. Last week EC president Ursula von der Leyen threatened to ban vaccine exports. According to the Financial Times, “EU officials confirmed the move has been prompted by anger over the UK’s failure to export any finished vaccines to the EU.”
On the other hand, the most powerful member states have fed antivax fears. Both France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel made scientifically unjustified statements that the AZ vaccine doesn’t work for older people.
Then last week coordinated action by 16 member states led by France and Germany halted AZ vaccinations. What proved to be 30 out of five million vaccinees had suffered unusual blood clots. The European Medicines Agency insisted the benefits of the AZ vaccine greatly outweigh any side effects.
The commentator Wolfgang Münchau denounced “a politically motivated blame game”.
“EU leaders keep discrediting AstraZeneca to deflect attention from their own mistakes and to puncture the notion of a Brexit-related British success story,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to Rosa Balfour of the Carnegie Europe think tank, “Everyone’s scrambling and hoarding, hiding and blaming. Nobody’s really in control—and there’s not sufficient trust.”
This leaves the EU ill-equipped to deal with the real problem—the race between the vaccines and the new, more infectious variants of Covid-19. Infections are rising and lockdowns spreading across the continent.