The EU's Vaccine Stumbles | Opinion

A few weeks ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's decision to purchase Russian and Chinese vaccines outside of official EU channels looked like a provocation, another way of thumbing his nose at the liberal West. Now Hungary's vaccine buys seem a portent of things to come. As frustration with a slow vaccine rollout builds and another wave of the COVID-19 virus crests in Europe, more countries are exploring alternative reopening strategies instead of waiting on the EU's vaccines.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the debate in Europe has revolved around individual country's responses, from the U.K.'s aborted herd immunity strategy to Sweden's comparatively lax quarantine rules. The real story of the COVID era is the weakness of pan-European institutions, which struggled to coordinate medical aid at the beginning of the pandemic and are now grappling with the problems of vaccine distribution. These problems highlight the EU's broader institutional shortcomings. An organization that is quite good at facilitating trade and disbursing cash is rather less effective when it comes to handling a global emergency.

After more than a decade of unpleasant surprises, it has become clear that the EU is simply not very good at crisis management. The 2008 financial collapse exposed the weakness of a single currency, which ties poorer countries on the European periphery to strict German-style monetary policy. The 2014-2015 wave of immigration and its aftershocks revealed a deep and enduring political divide between conservative populists like Hungary's Orbán and pro-immigration technocrats. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the hollowness of an organization that aspires to continental leadership but often lacks the capacity to lead.

As with immigration, fissures that were first exposed in Hungary are spreading to the rest of the continent. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have since followed Orbán's lead in acquiring Russian doses. Denmark and Austria are negotiating an independent vaccine partnership with Israel. Austria is also trying to reopen schools under a revamped test-and-trace regime instead of waiting for vaccines. None of these decisions speak to a high degree of confidence in the EU's ability to get doses out the door quickly.

Few world leaders have distinguished themselves during this crisis, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyten seems to have badly erred on the issue of vaccine procurement. Last summer, buoyed by the false dawn of warm weather reopenings and declining case counts, the EU declined to pursue the large upfront vaccine purchases made by the U.S. and the U.K. By agreeing to negotiate for vaccine supplies collectively, EU member states put their vaccine rollout at the mercy of the bloc's procurement strategy. Now they're paying the price for the EU's shortsightedness.

As the vaccine rollout stalls, the virus continues to worsen.

In the first week of March, Europe suffered over 1 million new COVID-19 cases. While schools and businesses reopen in the United States, European countries have again resorted to strict lockdown measures to contain another surge. Italy, the original epicenter of the European pandemic, placed quarantine restrictions on two-thirds of its citizens. In Hungary, schools and non-essential shops are closed at least until April.

These measures are particularly frustrating because vaccine distribution is accelerating elsewhere, often in places that are not known for state capacity. Israel is the global pace-setter, but Chile has also orchestrated a remarkably successful vaccine rollout, enabled in part by the same large upfront vaccine purchases the EU declined to make. In Europe, Serbia and the U.K. are leading the pack. Neither country is an EU member state.

EU flags
The EU flags are seen in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on May 19, 2020, in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

The consequences of a slow vaccine rollout are likely to be felt for years to come. Prolonged school closures hurt student achievement. Europe's recent COVID-19 surge is at least partially a result of quarantine fatigue, itself a consequence of the pandemic's heavy psychological toll. Renewed lockdown measures will also force more business closures and further slow the post-pandemic recovery.

This year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts 6.5 percent real GDP growth in the United States, 5.1 percent in the U.K. and 5.6 percent globally. The Euro area lags behind with a comparatively anemic projected growth rate of 3.9 percent.

The EU's vaccine stumbles get to the heart of its internal contradictions. The bloc has moved beyond its original mission of facilitating trade and freedom of movement but lacks the ability to assume leadership functions typically delegated to national governments. The vaccine rollout is a case in point.

The EU badly underestimated its need when placing initial orders. Supply bottlenecks have slowed the distribution process. As individual member states defect from the bloc's procurement program, other national governments have undermined the vaccine program by raising ill-founded health concerns about the AstraZeneca drug (a drug that has already been given to millions of patients in the U.K.). Here, the United States is an instructive counterpoint. American vaccine hesitancy is also an issue, but state governments can't unilaterally undercut the FDA's drug approval process.

There is a great deal of ruin in a wealthy multinational confederation, and if schools are able to reopen next fall and the economy recovers in the summer months, the bloc's vaccine stumbles will be forgotten in the warm glow of permanent reopening. But the virus and its aftermath have exposed some hard truths about European integration.

The EU now occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between its original purpose and the aspirations of its current leadership class. An organization that was founded to foster trade and travel now seeks a more expansive role. It is unclear whether it can actually fulfill those ambitions.

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.

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