Plagued by repeated delays, the European Union’s coronavirus vaccination program has citizens questioning the relevance and benefits of the Union. In recent weeks, Serbia (of all places!) has emerged as the European leader in vaccination rates, with 1.3 million people having received at least their first dose and seven per cent of the population of seven million already fully immunised. Serbia acquired a range of vaccines from pharmaceutical manufacturers in the UK, Russia, and China. In contrast, the EU’s centralised approach is looking increasingly laggard.
There are fair criticisms to be made of the EU’s decision-making during this crisis, but to judge the success of the vaccine strategy by its pace would be a huge mistake. One of the advantages of the centralised EU approach to procuring vaccines is the ability to act as an economic bloc to negotiate contracts and secure supply lines, but if the point of the EU was just economic might, then it wouldn’t be much more than a coal and steel community. The role of political and social union in this vaccine strategy is much more important.
The politics of the EU’s slow vaccine rollout
The manufacturers of vaccines purchased by the EU are failing to meet the promised levels of supply, causing ongoing delays. But fundamentally, the slowness of the rollout has been blamed on the EU’s risk aversion earlier on in the process, as it authorised and purchased supplies behind countries like the US, UK, and Canada, and became over-reliant on the delivery of the British AstraZeneca vaccine as a result.
When the first major delays became apparent in late January, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, made an example of AstraZeneca. In the ensuing attempt to pressure the UK government and manufacturers by proposing vaccine export restrictions that would affect the Northern Ireland border, the EU was accused of putting the peace at risk. The episode seemed to typify relations between Brussels and London just weeks after the UK had formally delivered Brexit, and it made the EU look incompetent.
Meanwhile, following the lead of its southern neighbours, Hungary began unilaterally acquiring international vaccines to speed up its program while waiting for EU supplies. Under the centralised EU approach, these will be distributed to Member States evenly, on a per capita basis. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, criticised the EU for politicising the vaccination strategy by prioritising the approval of drugs from Western pharmaceutical companies to the exclusion of those manufactured in Russia. He stated that European nations would have been better off racing to acquire as many vaccines as possible on their own.
It seems unlikely that the EU has actively shunned the Russian vaccine. Even if news of Sputnik V’s efficacy came at an awkward moment for the Union, amidst decisions on sanctions in relation to the Alexey Navalny case, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke out in favour of the drug as soon as the study results showing its efficacy had been published.
Orbán’s statements are hardly surprising coming from an openly anti-EU politician, but they are a dangerous endorsement of the so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ which threatens our ability to fight the pandemic. Those, including the BBC, who criticise the pace of the EU approach and applaud Serbia for ‘showing the rest of the continent how things should be done’ are generating the same kind of thinking.
The threat of vaccine nationalism within Europe
‘Vaccine nationalism’ is exemplified by the race that Orbán describes. Secure vaccine contracts for your own population first. It is a race in which the rich countries of the world have a clear advantage. Von der Leyen herself has spoken about the danger that this everyone-for-themselves strategy poses.
Vaccine nationalism not only worsens global inequality, but also increases the likelihood of mutations occurring which could render vaccines less efficacious. If rich countries hoard vaccines while the virus is allowed to spread elsewhere, it is only a matter of time before new strains pop up. If, or should I say when this happens, we simply don’t know whether existing vaccines will offer protection against them.
While we find ourselves concerned that the EU’s doses are not arriving on time, countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America are struggling to sufficient supplies. The problem is not only economic, but caused by rich countries having hedged their bets by purchasing up to five times as many doses as they require. Even though the EU was less aggressive than the US or Canada, the number of doses administered per capita in Europe is already more than three times that in Asia or Latin America.
Our global interdependence in managing this crisis is one of the reasons that organisations like COVAX exist – and are supported by the EU – to ensure vaccine access throughout the world. Last week we celebrated the delivery of the first COVAX vaccines to Ghana. The centralised EU approach to procuring vaccines and distributing doses to Member States evenly protects against vaccine nationalism at a more local level within Europe.
The borders of Europe closed at the beginning of the pandemic as Member States protected their own in a selfish, uncoordinated response to what was treated as the isolated arrival of a virus from China to northern Italy. The EU became instantly irrelevant. If EU Member States were allowed to purchase and distribute vaccines in a selfish and un-coordinated matter, what are the chances that borders might be soon opening as we begin to imagine a late summer holiday by the Mediterranean? The conflict that would ensue, as richer European countries hoarded vaccines and locked out would-be tourists from their poorer neighbours, would have been a political disaster for Europe and the Union which has underpinned the relative international peace on this continent for decades.
The role and relevance of social Europe
Those who are criticising the pace of the vaccine rollout in Europe are prioritising the economic role of the EU: both the Union’s power as a bloc to manage the purchase and supply of vaccines, along with the importance of getting back to business as soon as possible to alleviate the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Defeating the pandemic is not primarily an economic objective, but a social one. Economic disruption has had harmful effects on the mental health and general wellbeing of Europe’s population, but this is fundamentally a public health crisis. Over 36 million Europeans have fallen ill with coronavirus, and more than 830,000 have died. Stopping the death, dealing with the collective grief, and re-instilling joy and hope into our daily lives is a social mission.
European institutions don’t just exist for efficiency, but to uphold a social mission that is based on a decent standard of living and equality among the citizens and residents of Member States. They exist not only to get things done faster or cheaper, but in a way that is safe, responsible, and, most importantly, based on equitable access. During this public health crisis, those social goals should be the priority.
We should judge the success of the EU’s strategy not by its speed, but by its equity. The strategy will be a success if all EU Member States are simultaneously able to vaccinate enough of their populations to allow us to return to working, operating businesses, meeting friends in bars and cafes, watching live sport and music, and travelling freely across national borders.
If the EU fails to hold Member States to the centralised approach and more countries adopt the Hungarian tactic of vaccine nationalism, then the vaccination strategy has failed. If individual Members States sacrifice equity for speed, we risk leaving some European citizens behind and jeopardising both the long-term success of the vaccination program and the relevance of the Union.