PARIS - If there is one benefit to the coronavirus pandemic, the head of France’s fledgling Generation Frexit movement - which wants France to follow Britain’s example in leaving the European Union - believes it has been Europe’s fumbled response.
“I think the vaccination rollout is the best advert for Brexit — but it’s also a very good advert for Frexit, and for all the other countries that want to take back their freedom and independence,” Charles-Henri Gallois, the group’s president, said.
For the moment, and despite widespread European grumbling over the region’s slow vaccine rollout, not to mention strict COVID measures, there is no seismic shift in this direction. Polls show that while many European voters blame Brussels for their lack of shots, most still support the EU. Even traditional pro-’exit’ parties, such as France’s far-right National Rally, have toned down or shifted their rhetoric.
Analysts warn that could change, though.
“Euroscepticism in its hardest form has gone out of fashion,” The Economist wrote this week, but warned it could quickly come roaring back.
“If EU citizens find themselves still confined to their homes while Americans and Israelis hit the beach,” it added, “Europe’s band of Eurosceptics may stir anew.”
Other observers agree the EU’s executive arm, charged by member states last year with procuring vaccines for the bloc, faces mounting pressure to deliver.
“Many citizens are looking at what’s happening in Brussels and saying, ‘I want to get a vaccine, but I cannot,’’ said French far-right specialist Jean-Yves Camus. “There’s a risk of part of the population turning against the EU, and saying ‘what’s happening?’”
Bottom of the pack
Few dispute Europe’s vaccine rollout has been underwhelming. More than half of Israelis and nearly one-fifth of Americans have received at least one coronavirus shot, according to Our World in Data, compared to fewer than 7% of the French and Germans.
While national campaigns and delays by manufacturers are also to blame for the slow vaccination pace, polls suggest a sizable chunk of European ire is nonetheless directed at Brussels. A recent Kekst CNC poll, for example, found between one-quarter and half the citizens of France, Sweden and Germany blamed the EU rather than their own governments for the problems.
Some EU leaders are joining them and breaking with bloc unity in the scramble for extra supplies. Austrian Chancellor Sebastien Kurz—whose government recently agreed to a vaccine development deal with Israel— complained of a vaccine “bazar,” with some EU countries getting more than others.
More galling, for some here, are statistics from ex-EU member Britain, which has delivered at least one shot to more than a third of its citizens. As surging COVID-19 cases render Paris hospitals near capacity, for example, admissions in Britain have plummeted.
“Obviously, this comes as a big blow to those who have been saying for a long time that Britain was going to do much worse outside of the European Union,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, Brussels-based analyst for the Centre for European Reform policy institute.
Referring to EU member states, she added, “it’s not that they were actively trying to downplay the UK’s vaccination success, but they were very conscious—in France and Germany particularly—not to do anything that would fuel this idea that ‘Brexit is a success.’”
For Generation Frexit’s Gallois, that is exactly the lesson.
“I think the vaccination is the most obvious failure of the European Union during the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
The EU’s executive arm has acknowledged mistakes in its vaccination strategy.
"We were late to authorize,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
“We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time."
There is also another side to the numbers story. Several EU countries, including France, are ahead of Britain when it comes to the percentage of citizens fully vaccinated with two shots, and none have yet matched Britain’s soaring coronavirus death toll.
Brussels defenders argue problems negotiating vaccines for the first time for 27 countries were understandable.
“Of course, Germany or France acting alone as the UK did, might have been able to secure enough vaccines to meet their needs, but certainly not under conditions as favorable,” wrote Jean Quatremer, Brussels correspondent for France’s leftist Liberation newspaper in an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper. “Most important of all, smaller countries would have been left high and dry.”
That has not stopped the harsh criticism from populist parties, along with member states such as Hungary that have tangled with the EU over other issues.
Jordan Bardella, vice president of France’s National Rally--the country’s main opposition party—argues his country is experiencing a “vaccine Waterloo” moment, referring to Napoleon’s historic defeat by the British.
“We see the European Union has failed, and especially France is the only member of the U.N. Security Council not to have its own vaccines,” Bardella told France 2 television. “This poses a real problem in medical sovereignty.”
No Frexit for now
Yet the Rally has made a U-turn when it comes to its once-staunch pro-Frexit stance. Party leader Marine Le Pen — considered the top rival of President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s election — no longer talks about leaving the bloc but rather “profoundly reforming it.”
In neighboring Italy, populist leader Matteo Salvini has been similarly silent on an ‘Italexit’ recently, pledging instead to support, for now, Italy’s new EU-friendly Prime Minister Mario Draghi. While Draghi has also criticized Brussels’ slow vaccination drive, he worked within its rules to recently block exports of AstraZeneca doses to Australia.
In the Netherlands, where a coronavirus curfew sparked rioting, pro-exit Freedom Party head Geert Wilders has blasted the country’s slow vaccination rollout as “outrageous.” Yet polls show Prime Minister Mark Rutte still comfortably leading ahead of the March 17 elections. Wilders echoes analysts in concluding that despite public grumbling, the pandemic has catalyzed a “rally around the flag” moment supporting Rutte’s pro-EU government.
"If we would have a referendum, I would lose it,” Wilders told Agence France-Presse about prospects of a Dutch “Nexit,” “but I still think it's unfortunately the only way."
Generation Frexit’s Gallois also takes the long view. He predicts voter sentiments will shift as French citizens watch Britain’s swift vaccine rollout translating into a similarly swift post-coronavirus recovery - although initial signs point to slumping trade with the EU hitting the British economy hard.
“They will see it’s more efficient, more flexible to be outside the EU,” Gallois said.