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What the EU got right on vaccines

A vaccination centre at Berlin's Velodrom - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

European leaders have made catastrophic errors over vaccines, for which their citizens are paying a price. But the shambles has not undermined the basic principles on which the EU is built.

The roll-out of the Covid vaccine should be a moment for universal celebration, but something disturbing is happening. It’s being wrapped in a Brexit narrative which seeks to undermine the EU and the entire notion of international cooperation.

The story is now well established. The EU was slow in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, slow in authorising the vaccines, slow in receiving deliveries and slow at rolling them out to the public.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron actively encouraged vaccine hesitancy when they cast doubt on the efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca product.

Meanwhile, Britain powered ahead with its vaccination programme. Last week, Germany’s Bild newspaper proclaimed: “Dear British, we envy you.”

No.10 didn’t waste any time connecting the vaccine roll-out to Brexit. Boris Johnson recently attacked Keir Starmer for wanting to stay in the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which “would have made that rollout impossible”.

This was a lie. Britain was still bound by EU rules when the vaccination programme began and those rules allowed countries to temporarily authorise vaccines without waiting for EMA approval.

But there is a broader narrative developing which is harder to disprove. It is that Britain’s response was more effective because it was able to act as a smaller, nimble actor, while the EU was caught out by being large and unwieldy. The vaccine success might not have been the direct result of Brexit, but it spoke to its possibilities.

This argument aims for the heart. It strikes directly at the principle of institutional international cooperation. And it does something arguably even more damaging than that. It attacks the principle of solidarity in European politics.

In recent years, it felt like the EU itself was giving up on this idea. The eurozone crisis saw Greece left to suffocate under the brute logic of austerity. The refugee crisis saw continental squabbling prevent a coordinated response.

It looked like life would repeat itself in the opening stages of the pandemic, when a free-for-all developed between European countries over PPE. Most people expected the same thing to happen over vaccines. Poor European countries would struggle to secure them while rich countries would hoard them.

But then something changed. Instead of each member state going into individual negotiations with pharmaceutical companies over vaccines, the EU negotiated on behalf of everyone.

This is the moment that British eurosceptics say doomed the whole enterprise. But that is false. The European error was not about centralising procurement. It was about negotiating priorities, delivery schedules and national roll-out.

In talks with pharmaceutical firms, the EU team emphasised low prices and a legal obligation on drugmakers if something went wrong.

The first priority was foolish. Any amount paid for the vaccine would be dwarfed by that regained through the end of lockdown.

The second was understandable. Europe has a long history of vaccine scepticism, encouraged by nationalist parties like Italy’s Lega and France’s Marine Le Pen. The guarantees were intended to help counter it.

But regardless of how valid or invalid they were, these demands meant the negotiations dragged on. Europe overestimated the heft it enjoyed through its market size.

There were then further delays in delivery. The problem now is not really with the EU, but with member states, many of whom are struggling to get the vaccines they received into people’s arms.

Some, like Denmark, have performed admirably. Others, like France, have performed badly. In some cases, it’s because of anti-vax sentiment. In others, it’s because of logistical failures.

The delivery problems have now been addressed. New supply agreements and increased production means the EU can now hit, or even beat, its target of vaccinating at least 70% of the adult population by the end of the summer. If member states fix their internal issues, the British and European situation should look much more similar in a few months’ time.

There’s no point dismissing the mistakes Europe made on price-fixation, delivery and rollout. Von der Leyen and Macron were utterly irresponsible in their comments on AstraZeneca. But these errors were distinct from the decision to pursue a centralised procurement strategy.

Imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t. We would currently be watching poorer countries being abandoned while rich countries hoarded their vaccines. British eurosceptics would have gleefully jumped on the airwaves to insist it was proof of Europe’s moral failure. It would have shown European solidarity to be a lie.

Instead, small and medium-sized countries have received vaccines faster than they would have otherwise. Europe has shown that it protects its members, especially those too small to command priority on the global stage on their own.

This is a contorted, complex story. Europe has made mistakes. But the principle of solidarity wasn’t one of them.

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