Hungary is to receive 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine this week. The Chinese-made vaccine is the second jab Viktor Orban’s government has ordered independently of the EU-wide procurement scheme, after Russia’s Sputnik-V. Hungary’s national regulator has approved both vaccines for use, breaking with the authority of the European Medicines Agency, an option available to all EU countries but which no others have so far chosen to use.
Orban has claimed that with the Chinese and Russian vaccines, Hungary will be able to vaccinate 6.8 million people by early June, just under twice as many as would otherwise have been possible. Whether accurate or not, the claim underscores why his government has chosen to bypass European regulators and seek more vaccines independently. It puts Hungary on track to do better than the current EU target of vaccinating 70 per cent of adults by the end of the summer, closer to better-performing nations such as Israel and the UK.
Echoing the reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Orban said last week that: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. Therefore we are using both Western and eastern vaccines.” He has also criticised the EU for its excessive focus on acquiring doses at low cost. “For us, who are not Brussels bureaucrats but Hungarians … the money is not irrelevant, but secondary compared to life.”
Orban’s decision to order vaccines from Russia and China can hardly be separated from his longstanding euroscepticism and willingness to lock horns with Brussels over the rule of law and LGBT rights, as the New Statesman has previously reported. Hungary is a member of the so-called 17+1, a grouping of European countries launched in 2012 for China to engage with central and eastern Europe. While several members sent lower-level officials to a meeting of the grouping last week in what was viewed as a snub to China, Orban addressed the meeting, slavishly heaping praise on president Xi Jinping.
Retribution from Brussels, which in November warned Hungary against using the Russian vaccine, is unlikely, given the poor state of the EU’s own vaccine rollout. The balance of power has shifted since last year, as it has become clear that the EU Commission agreed terms with manufacturers which have so far led to too few doses being delivered too slowly.
[See also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle]
National politics are likely to be playing a role too. Elections are due next year and recent opinion polling shows Orban’s Fidesz party roughly level-pegging with the opposition, which plans to unite into a single list to unseat the prime minister. (Quite how stable a coalition of social liberals, socialists and the far-right would be if it did succeed in forming a government is another question.)
For democrats, most disputes between Hungary and the EU – whether over LGBT rights, migrants, or the rule of law – are fairly clear-cut. What makes the decision to order Chinese and Russian vaccines different is that Orban’s move, which will ultimately result in more Hungarians being vaccinated faster than they would otherwise have been, appears a reasonable response to Brussels’ stuttering rollout.
In bypassing the EMA, Hungary’s regulators are taking a risk. But vaccinating too slowly is also a risk with proven costs. As international editor Jeremy Cliffe wrote in his column this month, to be pro-European should not mean blinding oneself to the reality that the EU’s vaccine rollout is too slow.
If Orban’s decision results in more member states following Hungary’s lead and acting independently of the EU to obtain vaccines from other sources, including Europe’s geopolitical rivals, that would be a further nail in the coffin for the joint EU vaccine procurement programme, which EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had wished to be remembered as “a touching moment of unity and a European success story”. But responsibility for the failure will rest with Brussels, not Budapest.