European Union solidarity is breaking down amid a vaccine debacle that analysts say may have long-lasting repercussions for the future of European political integration.
Member states are divided over the wisdom of imposing a vaccine export ban threatened by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The ban is mainly focused on Britain, a bid to secure more vaccines for the EU, but critics warn it could backfire on the bloc and tarnish its much vaunted commitment to free trade and internationalism.
And there is also an emerging dispute on whether the vaccines the bloc is receiving are being distributed fairly by the European Commission among the EU’s 27 member states.
Five central European and Baltic countries, led by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, have complained of unequal treatment and plan to raise more forcefully their objections over the apportionment at a summit Thursday of EU heads of state and government.
“The last few weeks have shown that deliveries are currently not being made according to population keys and that this is set to intensify in the coming months,” reads a complaint signed by Kurz and four other national leaders.
The disgruntled national leaders added: “This approach clearly contradicts the political goal of the European Union — the equal distribution of vaccine doses to all member states. If the distribution were to continue in this way, it would result in significant unequal treatment — which we must prevent.”
Cases and frustration growing
The mood in European capitals is turning sour. Locals complain they can’t see the light at then of the pandemic tunnel. Coronavirus infections are rising rapidly across the continent, in contrast to Britain and America, where much quicker and nimbler vaccine rollouts are seeing a significant falloff in the rate of confirmed cases.
Much of the frustration among member states is being directed at von der Leyen, who was the driving force behind persuading member states to sign on to a vaccine procurement and distribution program managed by the authorities in Brussels.
She and EC commissioners argued a bloc-wide approach would alleviate the risk of vaccine rivalry between member states as they scrambled to place procurement orders and would advertise the strengths of the EU, which in turn would help garner more public support for greater political integration.
But it hasn’t turned out that way and Europe is lagging behind on inoculation as a third wave of the pandemic hits the continent. EU countries are short overall on vaccines — but are also sitting at the same time on millions of doses of the British-developed AstraZeneca vaccine because of public doubts about its safety.
Seventeen states, including France and Germany, paused administering Astra jabs last week because of worries that the vaccine caused blood-clots, but then reversed the halt, leaving behind however residual public fear about Astra and increasing incidents of Europeans refusing Astra jabs.
Von der Leyen on Sunday raised the vaccine war stakes with London, threatening again to block AstraZeneca from exporting jabs manufactured in the EU to Britain if the Anglo-Swedish company doesn’t first meet its supply obligations to EU countries. Brussels says Britain has grabbed more than its “fair share” of vaccines and hasn’t been sending to Europe any Astra vaccines produced in Britain. The British argue their contract pre-dates the EU’s by several months and because the EU was late in ordering, it is suffering the consequences.
“We have the possibility to forbid planned exports,” Von der Leyen told German newspapers. “That is the message to AstraZeneca, ‘You fulfill your contract with Europe before you start delivering to other countries.’” An export ban would likely target not just the Astra vaccines manufactured in the EU but also the export of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, which are produced in Belgium.
Privately, British officials say they would consider retaliating if a ban is imposed by blocking crucial ingredients shipped from Yorkshire needed for the manufacture in Belgium of the Pfizer vaccine. The U.S. drug maker has warned Brussels that production at its main vaccine plant in Belgium would “grind to a halt,” if Britain opted to retaliate.
The threat of an export ban is causing alarm among several member states, with Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden all against the proposal to block vaccine exports. They have warned it would tarnish the bloc’s reputation as a champion of free trade and the rule of law. Belgian officials say they’re worried that export bans would impair supply chains that rely on international trade.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Alexander De Croo, the Belgian Prime Minister. “We discussed our efforts to tackle COVID-19. We also touched on the importance of global supply chains and on common efforts to speed up vaccine production,” De Croo said after the conversation. British officials say they are hopeful about shaping an alliance against Brussels on the issue of an export ban and remain confident German Chancellor Angela Merkel would also oppose such a drastic step.
EC commissioners place some of the blame for the slow pace of inoculations largely on member states. EU countries have vaccinated barely 10% of the bloc’s population compared to Britain which has inoculated more than 50%. EU officials say they are being scapegoated by member states.
But major EU powers, including Germany and Italy, are pointing the finger at Brussels, and their leaders are tiring of what they say are severe shortages in EU supplies. A German official told VOA the EU commissioners are proving to be “the gang that can’t shoot straight.”
The Sputnik option
Jens Spahn, the German health minister, told reporters “there is not yet enough vaccine in Europe to stop the third wave through vaccination alone. Even if the deliveries from EU orders now come reliably, it will still take several weeks until the risk groups are fully vaccinated.” He has warned Germany might decide to buy Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine even before the EU medicines regulator has authorized it. “I am very much in favor of us doing it nationally, if the EU does not do something,” he said Saturday.
Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister and a former head of the European Central Bank, has also raised the prospects of ignoring the EU and purchasing the Russian vaccine. With case numbers spiraling out of control in Italy, there are fears that the third wave could be as deadly as the first wave, and Draghi says his priority is “giving the greatest number of vaccinations in the shortest time possible."
“If European coordination works, fine,” the Italian leader said at a press conference when asked about buying Sputnik “Otherwise on health, you have to be ready to do it yourself. This is what Merkel said and this is what I am saying here,” he added.
Hungary and Slovakia have already purchased Sputnik doses.
Frustrations over the vaccine program and the reimposition of lockdown restrictions in many European countries is boiling over in parts of the continent. Thousands of anti-lockdown protesters took to the street in Germany and Switzerland in protests organized by activists by both far-left and far-right groups.
There are also signs voters mean to make their feelings clear in upcoming elections about their frustrations with the vaccine rollout as well as re-tightened lockdowns. German Chancellor Angela Merkel Christian Democrats suffered last week historic defeats in state elections, seen as a test of voter opinion before September’s nationwide German federal ballot. French President Emmanuel Macron has also seen his polls numbers drop.
Guy Verhofstadt, an EU lawmaker and the former Belgium prime minister, admits the vaccine campaign has been “ a fiasco,” but says, “in these troubled times, European integration is the only sensible way forward for our continent.” He maintains it proves the EU needs a proper “health union.”
However, voters might not see it that way. Some analysts question whether the EU will come out of the pandemic stronger than it went into it with some suggesting that Brussels’ handling of the pandemic will undermine the appetite for further political integration.
“With its disastrous vaccine procurement policy, the EU committed the ultimate mistake: it has given people a rational reason to oppose European integration,” argues Wolfgang Münchau, director of Eurointelligence, a specialist news service.