The global financial crisis, the refugee wave, Greece’s sovereign debt crisis, Brexit – even the greatest optimist cannot deny that the European Union has been hit by a whole series of damaging blows since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect in December 2009. But perhaps the most destabilising and devastating crisis is that of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Member States struggle to get back on their feet, the EU has set countless measures within the Recovery Plan for Europe in a joint effort to support citizens, businesses, and healthcare systems to mitigate the social and economic effects of the pandemic. Despite the high hopes placed on the vaccine rollout, the impact of the third wave looms over Europe. The World Health Organization has warned that the number of people dying from COVID-19 in Europe is drastically higher now than it was this time last year, with over 24,000 deaths per week. Delays in vaccine rollouts aggravate matters further, signalling that the worst may be yet to come.
Figure 1: The Economist
What went wrong?
According to the Economist, around 58% of British adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine. America stands at 38%, whilst only 14% of EU citizens have been vaccinated. The EU indeed suffers from a substantial ageing population, and some European countries have high levels of vaccine hesitancy. Nevertheless, the decision to rely on the European Commission to procure the vaccines for 450 million people has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The reason: the European Union gave priority to its budget and focused too little on securing its supply.
The Union’s mistake became apparent when it experienced an unprecedented fall in the supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine due to yield problems in Belgium. As the company refused to divert doses made in the UK, the EU threatened to impose export bans to prevent the AstraZeneca doses made in the Netherlands from reaching the British shores.
On the opposite side of the Channel, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock angered Brussels by stating that the UK had a better contract than that secured by the European Commission. Essentially, the UK’s agreement with AstraZeneca obliges the company to deliver doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire to Britain first. In an attempt to spark Member State’s support for the export ban, Ursula von der Leyen disclosed that 21 million doses had been exported from the EU to the UK since December 1st. Over 1 million were from AstraZeneca, and Pfizer supplied the remainder. London, however, has failed to send any AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU, refusing to adopt an open market outlook on vaccinations.
Figure 2: March 17th, EU threatened ban on COVID vaccine exports to the UK
Amidst the EU-UK turmoil, former European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the “stupid vaccine war” must immediately end. The European Union must acknowledge that the UK opted for an emergency decision-based approach, whereas the EU took a more cautious, budget-conscious approach. Ultimately, it was a terrible mistake. A mistake that is ever more evident following Europe’s recent vaccine suspension. Not only did the EU fail to secure the doses it promised, but it also has fractured public trust by breeding confusion and uncertainty over vaccine efficacy, providing conflicting information about its side effects. Witnessing how the situation was so outrageously mishandled, public opinion can’t help but wonder who will be held accountable for the catastrophic damage and the loss of European lives in the months to come.
While the EU has clearly mismanaged the vaccination rollout, it is also wholly mistaken to set the UK as an example for handling the pandemic. Does the reader remember, back when everything started in March 2020, Boris Johnson’s outrageous conviction to avoid lockdown measures until herd immunity was reached? The consequences of his short-viewed approach are unparalleled: 127 thousand fatalities, and the highest number of deaths per 100,000 (187), compared to the EU as a whole (138) or America (166). Contributing to the utter devastation and the brutal number of deaths, since the development of the “British variant” B1.1.7 in late September, 85,000 people have lost their lives. Four million people (one out of every 17 Britons) have recorded infections. It is undeniable that what happened this winter in the UK was mass death and deluged hospitals on a scale not seen before in the pandemic.
This raises the question of how we can move forwards from now on. And most importantly, which approach to vaccination will save the highest number of lives?
Figure 3: “No one is safe until everyone is safe”
Protectionism vs Global Solidarity
After considering the outlook to vaccination pursued by the UK and America, one might argue that the best response to mitigate the pandemic’s effects is to opt for a protectionist, nationalistic agenda. Looking at these two countries, it becomes evident that refusing to export vaccines has facilitated a sufficient supply of jabs for their respective populations. Yet if rich countries descend into protectionism among themselves, the enormous challenge of supplying doses across the developing world will be almost impossible to achieve.
So far, the European Union has vouched for an international, global solidarity approach to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Since December 1st, 77 million doses made by producers in the EU have been shipped to 33 countries. Furthermore, the EU is one of the main contributors to COVAX, the global initiative to ensure equitable and fair access to vaccines. This is why the European Commission’s proposal to institute an export ban ultimately undermines Europe’s reputation as the defender of open trade and the rules-based international system.
In addition, the “me-first” is a self-defeating approach, as it will push prices up and encourage hoarding of doses. Even if the UK manages to vaccinate all the British population by restricting vaccine exports, the virus knows no borders. It will have the rest of the world in its grip as it continues mutating and developing. WHO’s secretary general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commented in January, “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”. We must remember that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and this requires a collective response that ensures equitable and fair access to vaccinations. A nationalistic approach to vaccinations will only prolong the pandemic and restrictions, aggravating human and economic suffering indefinitely.
The future looks grim for the Union
The Commission has claimed 70% of adults will be fully vaccinated by the end of summer. By keeping a close eye on a wave of expected deliveries, the EU should soon be receiving 100 million doses a month. But the effects of this crisis are far from over.
The EU-wide approach is splintering as Member States embrace emergency approvals for Russian and Chinese vaccines. Public opinion across the continent has plummeted from thinking things were well managed to poorly so.
Jean Monet, one of the European Union founding fathers, stated that “Europe will be forged in times of crisis, and it will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. Yet as argued by theorists of European integration such as Frank Schimmelfennig, crises are open decision-making situations. Public health remains primarily a competence of the individual Member States, which has slowed down the EU’s response to the crisis. Brussels has little experience adapting to a speedy changing landscape and has approached the pandemic with an overcautious, budget approach. It seems clear that if the European Union does not rise to the challenge now and recognizes the pandemic as an unprecedented health emergency, it will undermine its ability to tackle any other crisis in the future- ranging from climate change, to economic recovery and geopolitical strategy.
“Europe will be forged in times of crisis, and it will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”