The EU Vaccine Debacle

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) and European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides arrive at the European Parliament to debate the state of the E.U.’s coronavirus vaccination strategy in Brussels, Belgium, February 10, 2021. (Johanna Geron/Pool/Reuters)

For a long time now, the creation of the euro, a dangerous experiment that placed political fantasy over economic reality, has been the most damaging example of just how far, and just how incompetently, those running the EU would go in the name of “ever-closer union.” That dismal precedent may now have been eclipsed by Brussels’s involvement in securing supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine for those who live within the EU’s borders, a lethal experiment that placed political dogma over medical need.

Supported by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, the EU Commission (its administrative arm) took over the negotiations with vaccine manufacturers on behalf of all EU member-states last June. This was designed both as a declaration of EU “solidarity” and because of the belief that bargaining on behalf of the whole bloc could secure the vaccine at a cheaper price, a calculation that appeared to take little account of the economic costs of any delays, and delay was what — for a variety of reasons — Brussels delivered.

The U.K. came to its deal with AstraZeneca (the manufacturer of the Oxford vaccine) three months earlier than the EU, and its contract came with sharper teethThe EU also took four months longer than the U.K. and U.S. to sign up with Pfizer.

Making matters worse, the EU’s FDA, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a body by definition particularly receptive to the precautionary principle that plays such a dominant role in EU policy-making (except when it comes to setting up a new currency), took its time to approve the first vaccines. Its first approval came some weeks after the U.K. and ten days or so after the U.S.

Since then, the EU has struggled to catch up. As of this Tuesday, the U.K. had administered about 46 vaccine doses per 100 people and the United States had administered 38. Meanwhile, the EU had administered fewer than 14. More lockdowns are either on the horizon or being put in place.

The contrast between the grim picture within the EU and rapid improvements in its renegade province, Brexit Britain, has not improved the mood in Brussels, which has spent months looking for scapegoats, most notably AstraZeneca, which has faced production problems in Belgium, and may have favored the U.K. (contract terms, and the pace at which an agreement has been reached, have consequences). At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, some European leaders have publicly doubted the extent of the Oxford vaccine’s effectiveness while some EU nations even temporarily suspended its use over (it seems) groundless health fears.

None of these doubts, however, have prevented the EU Commission from threatening to trample over the property rights of various vaccine manufacturers located within the EU. It wants to restrict their ability — contracts or no — to supply countries that have high vaccination rates or that don’t allow vaccine exports themselves, two categories into which, by some curious coincidence, the U.K. arguably falls (the question of exports is complex).

Meanwhile, the Brits are not unaware that lipids, which are key to the production of the Pfizer vaccine in the EU, are manufactured in Yorkshire.

As we write, London and Brussels are trying to devise a solution that, in the words of a joint statement, will “create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.” Time will tell, and quickly too. But what should not change, at least quite so rapidly, will be memories of this latest debacle created by the relentless pursuit of “ever-closer union.”


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