As more and more Covid-19 vaccines have come onto the market, a global race of nations competing to vaccinate as much of their country’s population as quickly as possible has commenced. Naturally, outliers in this contest have already emerged. At the top of the table lie countries like Israel and the United Kingdom, whose highly effective programs have seen much of their vulnerable populations already protected after only a few months of the vaccine’s presence on the market. Yet, remarkably, it is major developed countries in the European Union (EU), such as France and Germany, who have emerged as outliers at the bottom of the table. As of February 18th, Germany had only administered 5.63 doses per 100 people, compared to 25.73 per 100 in the U.K..
The story of how the EU has failed so significantly in its vaccine rollout serves as a damning indictment of the institution and raises broader doubts over whether the EU is structurally equipped to respond to such crises. Whilst it is still early on in the vaccination process, it is undeniable that the start of the EU’s vaccination process has been a failure. But perhaps even more concerning than the EU’s failing program itself has been its initial response to this failure. This response has been defined by vaccine nationalism, and in the process of pursuing this flawed policy, the EU has shown a blatant disregard for the Northern Ireland border. It is perhaps this response to their initial failure, not the failure itself, that will be most consequential for the future of the EU.
First, it is important to analyze how the EU failed. Ironically, the explanation for this failure was best made by the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, who stated that the small size of the U.K. enabled it to act fast like a “speedboat,” unlike the “tanker” of the EU. This is perhaps the chief criticism of the EU’s approach; instead of allowing countries each to negotiate their own vaccine contracts, the EU decided to act collectively on vaccines, a decision motivated by fears of competition between EU countries for limited vaccine supplies.
The downside of this decision was speed: whereas the U.K. acted early and procured 407 million doses of Covid vaccines, the EU was slow off the blocks, signing their contract with AstraZeneca three months after the U.K. This slow movement was important, leaving AstraZeneca less time to iron out problems in its EU supply chain, as they stated in their response to the EU’s criticisms. The EU’s efforts to secure vaccines for lower prices and place more legal liability on the pharmaceutical companies further interfered with the pace of the rollout. For many, speed has ultimately become the defining factor in judging an effective vaccine rollout, and on this front, the EU has so far failed. Despite earlier criticism of Boris Johnson’s decision not to join the EU’s vaccine buying bloc, this decision now appears to have been a masterstroke.
Yet the real trouble arose for the EU when the scale of its failure became clear to its citizens. As AstraZeneca announced problems with vaccine supply for Europe–blamed on manufacturing problems at a plant in Belgium –the EU entered into an ugly spat involving AstraZeneca, the U.K., and ultimately the World Health Organization (WHO).
AstraZeneca continued to fulfill supplies to the U.K. on schedule because, as AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot stated, the U.K. had agreed that “the U.K. government said the vaccines coming out of the U.K. supply chain would go to the U.K. first.”
To respond to this shortfall in deliveries, the EU and its leaders made a series of catastrophic blunders, whose consequences will undoubtedly be felt well beyond the pandemic. First among these errors was the European Union’s decision to trigger Article 16 of the newly agreed Northern Ireland Protocol, a clause that guarantees an open border between Northern Ireland and the EU. Article 16 enables the EU or U.K. to stop any parts of the deal they feel is causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. By triggering this article, the EU intended to introduce export controls on vaccines entering the U.K. through Northern Ireland, in order to stop vaccines produced in the EU from going to the U.K.
What ensued was widespread condemnation from almost every player in U.K. and Irish politics, with the Northern Ireland First Minister, for example, calling it an “incredible act of hostility.” Inevitably, the EU had to backtrack on this error after “constructive talks” between Ursula Von Der Leyen and Boris Johnson.
Such U-turns are humiliating, but embarrassment on the EU’s part is not the only consequence of this comic indecision. After preaching the importance of respecting the Irish border to the U.K. during Brexit negotiations, the EU has lost any moral high ground they once claimed by using the Northern Irish border as a political tool to cover their vaccine failures. Such international agreements are not to be tampered with lightly, especially not those designed to guarantee a fragile peace in a region that has been plagued by violence until only very recently. With issues already emerging post-Brexit over the Irish border and businesses struggling to adapt to the new regulations, the EU’s Article 16 blunder led the Northern Ireland First Minister to urge Boris Johnson to replace the “unworkable” Northern Ireland Protocol. It would be a tragic occurrence if the EU’s incompetence over securing a stable vaccine supply were to lead to the falling apart of the deal agreed to maintain the provisions of the vital Good Friday Agreement.
Yet the underlying principle of why the EU sought to tamper with the Northern Ireland protocol is equally concerning. It was in their pursuit of vaccine nationalism that the EU caused so much chaos. Despite dropping the Irish element of their plan, the EU pressed ahead with plans to grant EU countries the power to stop vaccine producers exporting if they had not yet satisfied vaccine contracts they held with the EU.
Whilst the EU included 92 exceptions to this new power being used, such as donations to Covax, the international program that vaccinates poorer countries, they still received condemnation from the WHO, with the Assistant Director General for Access to Vaccines Mariangela Simao saying such vaccine nationalism displayed a “very worrying trend” for vaccine distribution.
In the short term, the consequences of these actions are clear. The EU, as a supposedly internationalist organization, should be leading the argument against vaccine nationalism. It becomes increasingly challenging for organizations like the WHO to make the case against vaccine nationalism when international bodies like the EU are displaying this nationalism themselves.
In the long term, this is yet another instance of reputational damage for the EU. The EU may wish to flout its internationalist credentials now, but its credibility to stand up for these values in the future will be impaired.
The EU now stands at a dangerous point. It has started its vaccine program poorly, and its efforts to rectify this failure have been reckless, crude, and ineffective. The whole world should be concerned by such failings; if countries with some of the most highly developed healthcare systems in the world cannot build an effective vaccination program, there is trouble ahead for others. The EU must end its vaccine nationalism and work to soothe tensions on the Irish border. If not, the pandemic may well go on far longer than needed.
Image: Graphic Design by Jiahua Chen