Farcical aspects aside, the row over the European Union’s vaccine supplies reveals the inability of the present system to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is a farce, however. Because the European Commission (EC) was slow and inefficient in ordering vaccines it is threatening to impose a new version of Napoleon’s Continental System by banning vaccine exports outside the European Single Market. Initially the EC was planning to include Northern Ireland in the ban. This would override the famous October 2019 protocol between Britain and the EU that kept Northern Ireland in the Single Market after Brexit.
It is the same protocol which Boris Johnson was roundly denounced by the EU for threatening to take powers to override certain of its provisions. The EC has vindicated those of us who said that Brussels’ stridently proclaimed commitment to keeping the border open between the two parts of Ireland was just a cynical manoeuvre to keep London on the back foot.
It’s also farcical that the EC is demanding that AstraZeneca prioritises its contract to supply its vaccine to the EU over its earlier contract with Britain. At the same time the French and German governments are claiming that this vaccine isn’t effective for the most vulnerable age group, the over-65s.
The ugly reality behind the EU’s approach to Brexit is emerging. As the Financial Times’s very anti-Brexit columnist Gideon Rachman tweeted, “The mistake over Northern Ireland may have been corrected—but it was still very revealing. Basically, as far as the Commission is concerned, this is all about Britain. Things could get nasty.”
Given that Britain is proving more efficient at procuring and distributing vaccines, the EU is even managing to make Johnson look reasonable. This is quite an achievement in the week that it was officially confirmed that his mishandling of the pandemic had cost 100,000 lives.
The conflict is an expression of what the political economist Will Davies calls “vaccine mercantilism”. The leading capitalist states—or in the EU’s case a cartel of these states—are overriding the market in order to ensure their own populations get access to the vaccines. In the process, all their proclaimed commitment to the free market goes to the wind.
The Financial Times Trade Secrets column pointed out that this isn’t the first time this has happened with the EU. At the start of the pandemic, it “imposed bloc-wide restrictions on PPE exports to keep essential goods at home. Weaknesses in the EU’s internal market spill over into dysfunction in external trade … because of the EU’s inability to manage internal supply and demand in a crisis.”
Vaccine mercantilism means an alliance between states and Big Pharma. To quote Trade Secrets again, “rich‑world governments have approached the development of a coronavirus vaccine with a public-private model. The idea is to guarantee demand via public purchase commitments … and get pharma companies to do research and development in return for intellectual property rights. Oxford university was initially going to give the IP for its vaccine away but was persuaded, not least by the highly influential Gates Foundation, to partner with a pharma company instead.”
The real victims in all this are not the peoples of warring Europe. Even the EU should manage to roll out the vaccines this year. It is the majority of the world’s population in the Global South. Their governments are too poor to make deals with Big Pharma and so are dependent on Northern handouts via Covax, an under-funded programme of the World Health Organisation.
The governments of the rich countries used their wealth and power to grab far more doses than they need. According to the New York Times, the EU will have enough to inoculate its residents twice over, Britain and the United States four times over, and Canada six times. And 51 percent of vaccine doses have been reserved by states representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population.
This huge injustice endangers us all. The longer the pandemic continues worldwide the more opportunities there are for new and more dangerous variants of the virus to be selected and spread. Vaccine mercantilism will exact a high price.