Friday, May 14, 2021

Why the European Commission failed the vaccine challenge

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The EU’s inability to deliver Covid-19 vaccines at a sustained rate is a scandal. For some prominent politicians, it’s a fiasco that could end their careers. Among those in the crosshairs are Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Emmanuel Macron, President of France and Jens Spahn, German Minister of Health and potential future chancellor.

How did it come to this? Much of the responsibility lies with the European Commission – which over the summer persuaded the 27 EU Member States to coordinate their vaccination campaigns and give responsibility to the commission.

There were good and bad reasons for this. The good reason was that EU officials could see the threat of dangerous divisions emerging between EU countries as they competed for scarce supplies.

The bad reason is that the committee and Mrs von der Leyen saw the pandemic as a great opportunity to expand the powers of the EU. Following the well-worn Brussels saying that the EU always makes progress in times of crisis, they pushed for control.

Health policy has traditionally been largely reserved for individual nations. But Mrs. Von der Leyen ad that the EU is in the process of “building a European Health Union”. The chairman of the committee liked the idea that Covid-19 would demonstrate the virtues of European solidarity. Photo ops have been scheduled, showing Europeans receiving their shots all over the continent on the same day. But instead of these positive images, the EU must explain photos of empty vaccination centers, appeased by a lack of supply.

In retrospect, the midst of a pandemic was probably not the perfect time to launch a radical experiment in health policy making. The European Commission has a health directorate. But it was traditionally a backwater, headed by a discreet commissioner, currently Stella Kyriakides from Cyprus.

Faced with a massive health emergency, the commission did not have the internal expertise to meet the challenge of purchasing vaccines. Brussels officials acted excessively cautiously, arguing over prices and contracts, while the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom rushed forward.

The commission is now blame AstraZeneca for not delivering all the shots promised. But the company points out that Britain signed an agreement three months before the EU, making it easier to set up and keep production lines running. The EU’s efforts on a big advance purchase order were partly hampered by suspicions among countries poorer than Germany and France wanted to channel the money to their own businesses.

Other parts of the EU system were also not suitable. The legal service of the committee is much appreciated, but its expertise is the interpretation of European law. He had no real experience in negotiating large public procurement projects. The result was an unseemly dispute with AstraZeneca over a contract that the commission insists is watertight, but which many lawyers about also full of holes.

If and when the European Parliament and the European mediator launching inquiries into the debacle, Ms. Von der Leyen could be threatened. A senior Brussels official declared: “If the conclusion is that the commission was incompetent, on a question of life and death, it is a question of resignation.” The impression that the committee is struggling is reinforced by its hastily announced and quickly reworked ban on the export of vaccines, which sparked a international backlash.

The committee’s criticisms are also increasing within the EU. There have been damning verdicts on the management of Ms Von der Leyen in the German press. Markus Söder, Chief Minister of Bavaria, has accused the commission not to have the necessary sense of urgency and to follow “a typical European procedure, normal and bureaucratic”.

Mr Söder is widely seen as a strong candidate to replace Angela Merkel as German Chancellor when she resigns in September. The favorite is Armin Laschet, who has just been appointed leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. But Mr Laschet is closely linked to Mr Spahn, who is linked to the unfortunate decision to hand the purchase of vaccines to the EU.

The vaccine mess is also bad news for Mr Macron, who was in favor of an EU-wide vaccine policy. The French leader faces a presidential election next year. An opinion survey Last week showed Marine Le Pen, the far right leader, just behind him, by a 52-48 margin. The failure of French researchers to produce a vaccine is also treated as a national embarrassment. Mr. Macron’s critical AstraZeneca’s vaccine, shortly before it was approved for use in the EU, seemed odd.

Boris Johnson is a leader who is clearly winning politically from the current line. The British Prime Minister was in trouble on both Brexit and the pandemic. The UK has the highest per capita rate mortality rate for Covid-19 from any major country in Europe. A backlash against the loopholes in Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal grows as exporters across the country find themselves in red tape.

But the incompetence of the European Commission has, perhaps temporarily, reshaped the Brexit debate in Britain – making Mr Johnson’s arguments that the UK is better outside the EU appear more credible. . Covid-19 nearly killed Mr Johnson. But that has now given him a political lifeline.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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