The EU Has Nobody to Blame But Itself for Its Vaccine Debacle | Opinion

When European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen persuaded EU heads of state in June to hand her full discretion to procure vaccines for the bloc's 450 million residents, she probably envisioned EU flags stamped on pallet loads of vaccines delivered from Lisbon to Warsaw. The actual result has been rather different.

Europe's approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has involved merging 27 national ministries into a single "European Health Union." The merger would be a milestone, von der Leyen hoped, for the kind of "geopolitical commission" she has worked to build since taking over the European Commission in late 2019. Having a single entity negotiate in bulk with pharmaceutical suppliers would allow the EU to speed ahead of rivals in the cutthroat global race for safe vaccines—a fitting blend of European competitiveness and solidarity. That was the plan, at least. The subsequent European vaccination campaign has been nothing short of catastrophic. AstraZeneca's announcement Friday before last that 60 percent of the doses it pledged to deliver the EU before April won't be there on time has created a perfect storm for the bloc. The vaccine crisis will pose a test for the EU's competence far surpassing the Greek debt default of 2011 and the 2015 migration crisis in urgency and consequence.

The commission compounded its failed procurement campaign with a desperate attempt to save face by challenging AstraZeneca in Belgian court. The company has since pledged to fill some of the shortfalls it announced a week and a half ago, but Europeans will keep dying in record numbers over the next few weeks—from policy failure this time. While comparable economies diversified their efforts to obtain safe vaccines on time in sufficient quantities—more often than not by relaxing rules and coercing private actors—the EU held on to its hyper-regulatory habits, endlessly haggling over prices and quantities before signing an advance supply deal with AstraZeneca in August—a full three months after the U.K. did.

In any reasonably democratic system, these repeated blunders would have cost von der Leyen her job. Instead, commission bureaucrats revel in the unaccountability that comes from not having to subject their record to elections, even when lives are on the line. The EU makes up only 6 percent of global population but its cumulative COVID-19 deaths are about 19 percent of the world's total. The commission's full ineptitude remains to be digested.

Ursula von der Leyen
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen is talking to media at the end of a video conference meeting of the members of the European Council focused on the Covid-19 pandemic in the Justus Lipsius building, the EU Council headquarter, on January 21, 2021, in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty

The EU's shifting of the blame toward AstraZeneca throughout last week's crisis was as baseless as it was pointless. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides called on the Brit-Swedish conglomerate to divert vaccines from its plants in the U.K. to make up for the supply shortfall in the EU. The commission is demanding that AstraZeneca give EU patients priority over British ones, despite the U.K.'s three-month lead over the EU in approving and ordering the vaccine.

The irony of this demand should not go unnoticed. After a nasty campaign accusing the U.K. of "vaccine nationalism" for using its newfound post-Brexit autonomy to opt out of the EU's joint vaccine program, the commission swiftly unleashed a protectionist export ban to keep EU-produced doses from reaching British patients. In so doing, it jeopardized the thorniest part of the arduously reached Brexit deal from early January by placing a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, only to backpedal a few hours later after outrage from Ireland and the U.K.

Beyond being stubborn, hypocritical and vindictive, the EU's handling of COVID-19 is bound to cost lives. But the core lesson of this debacle isn't so much the EU's planning and regulatory ineptitude but the lack of accountability for its handling of the fallout. No commission official has yet resigned, in no small part because of the undemocratic architecture of the EU itself. But a deeper reason is the underlying state of elite opinion across the continent, which works to buffer scandals like this one with a dogmatic belief that whatever the catastrophic failures of supranational policy, the alternative is always worse.

Some of that consensus seems to be shifting, with papers from even Germany coming out against von der Leyen this week. But for the foreseeable future, Europeans will keep dying from a mutated strain of COVID-19—and their elites' stubborn dogmatism.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.