Flubbed EU vaccine roll-out risks yet another existential crisis

The EU's governments have administered just 2.3 doses of vaccine per 100 people.
The EU's governments have administered just 2.3 doses of vaccine per 100 people.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - From Brexit to migration, the European Union has weathered a multitude of crises over the past two decades.

None has affected so many of its citizens in such a profound way as its failure to inoculate them against the coronavirus.

The slow and chaotic nature of the bloc's vaccination roll-out has alarmed politicians, frustrated business and led to simmering anger among its 450 million-strong population.

Not for the first time, the EU is confronted with the question: What is its purpose if 27 countries working together are less effective than when governments go it alone?

After almost a year of lockdowns to fight a pandemic that hit Europe harder than much of the rest of the world, the EU's seeming inability to do more to come out the other side is stark. Its governments have administered just 2.3 doses of vaccine per 100 people, far behind the 11.4 per 100 in the UK and 7.8 per 100 in the US.

That slow rate of inoculation against the virus has dire consequences for fatalities and the pace of economic recovery.

Confronted with its perceived public failings, the European Commission in Brussels is taking on the pharmaceutical companies and imposing export controls in an all-or-nothing escalation of its response.

Privately, EU officials and diplomats worry that the bloc has failed in its prime obligation - to protect its citizens - and fear the corrosive effect that could have in the long run.

As member states flirt with nationalist forces that compel the EU to constantly justify its existence, such errors could have consequences more far-reaching than if they'd been made by an individual government, one official said.

Another described the unfolding chaos as like a horror movie.

"The political risks for the EU are enormous," said Dr Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based policy group Bruegel.

"But we should be clear: Many EU countries would have fared much worse if they had to negotiate with pharma companies on their own."

Negotiating contracts is supposed to be what the EU excels at.

In reality, the bloc was behind the UK and the US in signing deals for vaccines and in obtaining regulatory approval to use them.

Unforeseen pharma plant closures plus member states' inconsistent approach to delivery further slowed the roll-out.

To hear EU officials, there was no single misstep that caused the situation, but rather a succession of events that created a "perfect storm".

Calls are now being heard for an inquiry. But it's already clear that what has the makings of a debacle could yet become an existential crisis if more member governments, facing voters desperate for a vaccine and businesses clamouring to reopen, choose their own path.

It's a risk for the bloc just as its principal unifying voice, Gernman Chancellor Angela Merkel, prepares to stand down, with no clear candidate to take the helm in Germany.

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic reached Europe, governments, including Germany and France, took unilateral action to safeguard protective equipment and close national borders.

That left a bitter taste and fed resentment across the continent.

So in June, despite grumbling in several capitals, EU governments chose to cooperate on vaccine procurement because they thought their collective economic and political heft would give them an advantage in both price and securing shots.

They also considered that it would avoid the bloc's smaller countries from being left behind or, worse, from turning to Russia or China to source vaccines.

As recently as Jan 8, the commission boasted of securing as many as 2.3 billion doses that would not only serve its own citizens but could also be sent to neighbouring nations outside the bloc.

Now it's facing a shortfall that German Health Minister Jens Spahn said could last another 10 weeks.

Dr Merkel has taken it upon herself to convene a virtual meeting of German state leaders and company representatives on Feb 1 to discuss vaccine supplies.

Rather than "Europe's moment", as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the roll-out in December, officials in Brussels talk about complacency and over-confidence that the EU's relative size would automatically ensure success.

Questions are also being asked about the slowness of vaccine approval by the European Medicines Agency, which unlike its counterparts in the UK and US didn't use emergency authorisation to speed the process.

The situation is further complicated by the role member states play in approvals.

Some EU officials charged that several national experts had been slow in getting back to the regulator, delaying authorisation further, while government mistakes in their own distribution plans have made them at least as culpable.

A health official in one member state said the EU's relatively inflexible vaccine budget had reduced its negotiating power.

While some countries have thrown money at the problem, the commission was careful to negotiate on price, a practice that some in Brussels see as having sent it to the back of the line.

That rigidity, said the health official, coupled with some countries' intention to circumvent the joint process from the outset, got the programme off to a bad start.

Falling behind

By year's end, as the UK stepped up its vaccination programme having approved the BioNTech-Pfizer shot three weeks before the bloc, the EU was already well behind.

Then in January, Pfizer, from whom the bloc had the option to buy 600 million doses, said it would delay supplies to readjust its production.

That prompted a group of northern EU states to warn of "severe concern" about the credibility of the bloc's vaccination programme.

This week's stand-off with AstraZeneca after it informed the EU that deliveries would be lower than previously anticipated took things to a new level.

One senior EU official criticised how defensive the bloc was appearing.

With the backing of 27 governments, it should have the confidence to take on pharmaceutical giants.

It now seemed weaker than the sum of its parts, the official said.

Another said that the whole saga could boost populist politicians whose eurosceptic vigour had recently waned.

Earlier this month, Hungary became the first EU country to green-light a Russian vaccine before it was approved by the European regulator.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he could do something similar, having earlier slammed Pfizer for delays.

Domestic political pressure is growing on governments as some have to cancel planned vaccinations and maintain public restrictions with no end in sight.

The Netherlands saw its worst riots in four decades against a government curfew.

Mr Christophe Castaner, the head of President Emmanuel Macron's party in the National Assembly, told Le Parisien newspaper there was a risk of "civil disobedience" in France too.

Laughing stock

Nationalist leader Marine Le Pen called France "the laughing stock of the developed world" for the slow start of its vaccination campaign, while Germany's far-right AfD party said the responsibility for procuring doses should never have been handed to the EU.

Referring to the bloc's "supposed" vaccine strategy, Dr Sylvia Limmer, AfD health spokesman in the EU Parliament, said "it shows that with Brexit, the British have done everything right".

The EU's plight is embarrassing for its leadership coming so soon after signing a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK following years of insisting that Britain would be handicapped by leaving the club.

The bloc had been determined to place restrictions on the UK's ability to compete with the EU, and this showed just why, one Brussels official said.

Still, just as with its united stance in the face of Brexit, the bloc has consistently surprised with its resilience.

The Astra stand-off has helped to focus government blame on the company. And plans to tighten rules on the export of vaccines produced in the EU may help alleviate the shortage, albeit at the risk of stoking protectionism.

Either way, EU officials know what's at stake if they don't resolve the vaccine problems.

"All resources are now focusing on figuring out what has gone wrong," EU Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager told Bloomberg TV.