How do you vaccinate over 400 million people in a short amount of time? That is the question that the European Union tasked itself to answer when early in the COVID-19 it sought to organize vaccine distribution for the entire bloc. At heart, Brussels was coming from the right place: after many member states had felt screwed on their medicine procurement for the Swine flu in 2009, it made sense to streamline the process and add negotiating weight. After all, buying in bulk gets you better prices and quicker access, correct?
As it turns out, the EU’s bureaucracy stood very much in its own way. Don’t ask me, ask the former head of the European Medicines Agency, Guida Rasi, who said in an interview that Brussels just didn’t send experienced people to negotiate contracts. Many of them were bureaucrats who do not have backgrounds in pharmaceuticals And there lies the reason the EU has fallen behind the UK or the United States on vaccinations. As Politico quotes the former EMA chief:
“In addition, Italy’s representative on the negotiating team was a “senior bureaucrat,” he said, noting it seemed “unreasonable” to him that Italy did not instead send one of its seasoned negotiators from its medicines agency. “Nobody has any experience in negotiating pharmaceuticals, because it’s a member state prerogative,” he added. “So, everybody was put in the field without even knowing the rules of the game.”
The European Commission rejects the criticisms of its vaccine strategy. Likewise, Brussels is keen to underline that we wouldn’t be this far if we had not acted together. How exactly Israel, which is roughly the size of Portugal, managed to complete its vaccinations by the end of March, is puzzling to say the least. At least to the EU, I suppose.
At first, the EU was lauding the advantages of “vaccine solidarity”, hitting back at then U.S president Donald Trump for putting “America First”. Echoing the statements of the World Health Organization, Brussels said that COVID-19 is a global challenge, which is not confined to borders. Adding to that, Europe claimed to have a firm commitment to third world nations. A few months later, those words seem like empty promises.
The EU has put export bans on a number of vaccine deliveries, halting their shipment from ports around the continent. How much more “Europe First” does it get when you intervene in a legitimate transaction and break it off, just because the goods were produced and are still physically on your territory? This is already causing difficulties with the United Kingdom.
Brussels deplores the fact that before the control mechanism was implemented, millions of doses of the vaccine produced in December and January by AstraZeneca’s Dutch plant were sent to the UK, rather than stockpiled for the European market pending the green light from the European Medicines Agency. On the other hand, not a single dose produced in the UK has been sent to the EU since production began, according to several European sources, who point out that the UK “does not give any figures” on its own participation – which Brussels believes to be nil – in the international solidarity that it advocates.
This exchange of harsh criticisms and accusations comes in a context of already growing tensions around the respect of the post-Brexit agreement. At the end of January, Brussels infuriated the United Kingdom by trying to impose – before quickly giving up – controls on the border between the two countries to monitor vaccine exports. Last week, London provoked a new dispute by unilaterally extending by six months the suspension of health controls in the Irish Sea.
Be it talking up its bad negotiating or implementing export ban, nothing will hide the fact that the EU’s vaccine strategy is an utter disaster. The vaccine was heralded from the beginning as the factor that would put a definitive end to governments’ lockdown policies. Thus, governments must be held accountable for the speed with which they implement this vaccine policy.
Unfortunately, this example shows once again that the European Union is neither fast nor forward thinking. Rather, it displays that Brussels’ bureaucracy and pettiness are once again getting in the way of real and time-sensitive solutions to getting its people out of the constraints placed on their freedoms.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg. His works have been published in The Times of London, the Washington Examiner, Newsweek, Die Welt, and Le Monde.