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3 February 2021updated 04 Feb 2021 1:40pm

Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle

We should not be reluctant to criticise the EU. Calling out the failures of the project is the best way to bolster it. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

“I’m pro-European, but…” Those in favour of the European project often start sentences about the EU’s vaccine problems this way. In the UK they then tend to add that Brexit was nonetheless a mistake. On the Continent, they disavow “vaccine nationalism” and ministers tiptoe around failings as if they were unexploded bombs. The EU itself has been cagey on the terms of its procurement agreements and reluctant to apologise. The pro Europeans all have the same fear: that in a turbulent age in which a fundamentally good project is under strain, criticising it gives oxygen to its nationalist opponents.

The bare facts of the EU’s vaccine roll-out require no Eurosceptic spin to be damning. On 31 January France vaccinated 4,560 people. Britain, a country of similar population size, wealth, level of centralisation and pharmaceutical strengths, jabbed 319,038. The EU has vaccinated about three in every 100 people; the UK has vaccinated about 14. I have roughly as many close friends and relatives, of a similar range of ages, in the UK as I do in Germany, where I live. I know about ten jab recipients in the UK and not one here.

No, the EU will not collapse. And yes, it will probably muddle through to some sort of solution over the coming months. But this is unequivocally a farce. Many will die unnecessarily. And the excuses for this European tragedy are unsatisfactory.

The case for the defence is that the virus forced the EU to step up in an area – public health – in which it has little experience, to prevent its 27 member states from descending into angry squabbling over vaccine contracts as its richest countries hoovered up priority access. Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission, wary of accusations of heavy handedness and profligacy, and assuming it was shopping in a buyer’s market, consulted with member states and haggled over prices. Concerns about anti-vaccine movements prevented authorities from waiving producer liabilities or pressuring the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to issue emergency authorisations. And anyway, went the argument, vaccines are a marathon, not a sprint.

[see also: Europe isn’t working]

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Parts of this defence are credible. And yet in sum it dissolves on contact with the case for the prosecution. On realising last spring that the EU would need to buy vaccines as one, the Commission should have moved with lightning speed to demand a blank cheque (on cost and terms) from member states, planned logistics with them and put the EMA on standby for emergency authorisation. Even the fiscally hawkish German economist Clemens Fuest puts the value of each jab at about €1,500; the union spent months fussing over differences within a spectrum ranging from €10 to €30. And vaccines really are a sprint: more people vaccinated sooner means fewer deaths. They are a marathon, too, as new variants will probably necessitate top-ups and adjustments for years to come, but the sprint builds capacity for the marathon.

Just as it is right to call out the distortions of nationalists and Europhobes, so it is right to say when Brussels has presided over a debacle. Stonewalling and obfuscation now will delegitimise valid pro-European arguments when, in future as in the past, they are there to be made. More than that, it allows EU leaders to weaken the union by making avoidable mistakes with impunity. If you credit the average European with the common sense to see that, no, immigrants are not the fundamental cause of low wages and that, no, the EU is not a terrifying totalitarian superstate but a practical structure for the 21st century, you should also credit her or him with the wisdom to see when it has made genuine errors that need to be fixed now and prevented in the future.

Too many pro-Europeans are reluctant to do so because they fear attacks on the project. In their eyes, to criticise Brussels – or pro-European but eminently imperfect leaders such as Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel – is to give in to the nationalists. It is a tendency that cites peace since 1945 as a source of legitimacy in 2021; that brandishes the EU flag (also available in beret form) as an end to discussion rather than the beginning of one; and that slides into the inboxes of European commentators – me included – to chide them for helping the Europhobes whenever they acknowledge that the union is fallible.

The EU is still a halfway house. Whether on the euro, the single market, migration or foreign policy, it must move forwards or back, but cannot stand still. Forwards to federal structures that can master common problems, with a democracy to match, or back to nation-state rivalries. It often strikes me that, as a pro-European who tends to think the long slog of building a federal union is worth the trouble, I sometimes concur with Eurosceptics on some of the fundamental choices before Europe. We agree that we are approaching a crossroads, but not on the path to take.

My own German-British daughter’s great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were on opposing sides in two successive world wars; her parents and grandparents grew up in a continent at peace. So I viscerally understand the defensive flinch of many when the project that made this progress possible is under attack.

Yet none of that is much good if my daughter grows up in a continent that by the mid 21st century is dysfunctional. To tolerate failures such as the EU’s vaccine debacle makes that outcome more likely. It is not pro European to do so. Better to call out failings openly and push for change – and to see doing so not just as compatible with supporting the project, but as integral to it. Less “I’m pro-European, but…”; more “I’m pro European, therefore…” 

[see also: Could the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine approach become a global standard?]

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy