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EU desperately seeks inoculation against existential threat

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen - Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

The EU has survived previous crises. But it is not guaranteed to get through the next one, says JOHN KAMPFNER.

“All of us are responsible for the crisis, and all of us have a responsibility to resolve it.”

“We cannot shoulder this alone in the long term. We need a European solution.”

So said Donald Tusk and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The first quote in 2011 refers to the Greek debt crisis: the then president of the European Council insisted that all countries had to shoulder the burden, to ensure that Greece didn’t crash out and that the Euro survived. The second, in 2015, comes from a speech by the then German foreign minister (now German president), appealing to the UN General Assembly for collective action to deal with the migration wave that threatened to overwhelm Europe.

They could have been talking about any of the challenges the EU has faced. They could have been talking about vaccines. It is about the best of intentions and the worst of mechanisms. Until theory and practice align, the European project will continue to undermine itself from within.

How might four of Europe’s biggest countries – Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy – have fared if they had continued on the path that they embarked in 2020 with a joint effort to procure vaccines among themselves? Back in June the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance announced a deal for up to 400 million doses. That was a few weeks behind Britain and Donald Trump’s $10 billion Operation Warp Speed, but the gap was small and manageable.

Shortly after, those four members’ governments were persuaded by the European Commission to roll their plans into the larger pan-EU procurement operation under DG Sante, the directorate for the health, an under-resourced backwater. It was downhill all the way after that.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron wanted to avoid a repeat of the start of the pandemic when the Schengen process was slammed shut. Borders were closed. Export bans were imposed on urgent equipment. They realised with alarm how easy it was for vaccine nationalism to impose itself at a time of crisis, how easy it was for the entire European project to unravel.

Solidarity became the watchword; and in official circles it is even now. One of many stories little covered by the British media, has been the Germans sending emergency medical teams to Portugal, whose health system has been overwhelmed. Acts of cross-border assistance are regarded as core to the project, not “nice-to-haves”.

Among European publics, however, the word much more commonly affixed to the vaccines programme is fiasco.

With anti-lockdown protests increasing, with anti-vaxxers gaining strength, with health services under severe strain and economies plummeting, the immediate question is: was the solidarity worth the delay?

And if not, then what hope is there for European cohesion the next time trouble strikes? The debt crisis of 2011 and the refugee crisis of 2015 demonstrated how precarious are the ties that bind.

Some countries have responded to the vaccine shortfalls by going their own way. Outlier Hungary has gone cap in hand to Russia and China, just at a time when Europe is under pressure from the US to act tough towards the two authoritarian states.

The new came as no particular surprise; Viktor Orban is a fan of such regimes. It didn’t take long for other countries, however, including Germany itself, to moot similar options.

Of all the leaders, Macron appears to be the most wounded. His statements, and those of his ministers, have bordered on the petulant. Europe minister Clement Beaune suggested the Brits were “taking a lot of risks” on the vaccines, responding so quickly only because “they’re in a difficult health situation”. His interpretation may turn out to be valid. But it wasn’t smart politics and it does no one  – in either country – any favours to start undermining vaccination programmes with no evidence to hand, so far at least.

Macron opted for a loftier set of questions. “What politics does Great Britain wish to choose? It cannot be the best ally of the US, the best ally of the EU and the new Singapore … It has to choose a model.” He too may be right.

A similar question applies for the EU. What practicalities does it wish to choose? If it wants the European Commission to be the sole executor of these huge decisions, then those institutions need at least as large resources, know-how and clout as the major nation states. That is anything but the case now. In any case, do Europe’s voters really want to outsource jurisdiction literally over their lives to Brussels? That takes everyone back to ‘Go’, to the perennial questions then about European federalism.

The Brexiteers have been too busy gloating to worry about such philosophical conundrums. Amid the shrill headlines came an argument that was harder to refute: the new “sovereign” Britain is already showing itself nimbler, more entrepreneurial.

Commentators forgot to mention that only three days before, Boris Johnson had been forced to announce that Britain had crossed the terrible threshold of 100,000 coronavirus deaths. One of the worst casualty rates in the world; late lockdowns; chaotic procurement of emergency equipment; ridiculous border controls. And one of the sharpest GDP falls arising from the mess. Add to that the first month’s mayhem from Brexit, road freight down by a third, companies struggling. The only successful export – the “British variant” of the disease. Yet all that was dismissed as old news.

One of the quiet curiosities of Brexit is the small number of Europeans who actually envy it and who – extraordinary though it is to imagine – have a sneaking respect for our prime minister. Jan Ross, a writer for Die Zeit, is about to publish a book entitled Boris Johnson – Portrait of a Trouble-Maker. Ross belongs to a niche school of thought that praises the disrupters of what they see as hidebound institutions. The events of the past week will have instilled in him, and others, greater confidence.

The spat over the Northern Ireland protocol gives impetus to Britain’s army of Europhobes. The way Ursula von der Leyen invoked Article 16, giving commissioners 30 minutes notice via email on a Friday night while failing to consult the Irish on both sides of the border, opens the door for Britain to act equally whimsically in future.

That mistake was undone. Apologies were offered and accepted. The instruction from Downing Street to ministers not to boast were noted. European chancelleries know this is merely a tactic, but it was welcome nonetheless, although one source described as “condescending” Michael Gove’s assertion: “We will want to talk to and with our friends in Europe to see how we can help.” The source added: “The Brits don’t do magnanimity without superiority.”

Within a day, AstraZeneca and Pfizer pledged to speed up the delivery of vaccines within the EU, a bit. Deals with other pharmaceutical companies will be agreed and enhanced. These measures will help. But, as the German tabloid Bild noted, Europe was responding with the speed of “a snail”. The prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder demanded to know: “How is it possible that so large a continent, with such a strong economy and so many pharma companies, can’t do better on production?” Söder could yet become the candidate for chancellor of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party in this September’s elections. His tougher line will have done him no harm.

The pandemic has shaken national governments and the European project. The EU got away with it, just, on the debt and refugee crises. One more big failure, one more abject performance, and all bets on its survival will be off.

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