EU handling of Covid has had lots of lows but critics ignore things it got right

Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic is a lesson to EU to stick to things it’s good at

  European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. There is no doubt that the past 12 months have been replete with strategic mistakes and gaffes, and the EU would be foolish not to take account of that. Photograph:  Olivier Hoslet/EPA

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. There is no doubt that the past 12 months have been replete with strategic mistakes and gaffes, and the EU would be foolish not to take account of that. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

The braying of the Tory press in Britain has become deafening; the malicious chortling of the Brexit-supporting newspapers and politician growing to a crescendo as the European Union’s bungling drowned out the news of 100,000 British deaths.

Humiliation, boomed the Daily Mail. Disaster, screeched the Daily Telegraph. Total disaster, insisted the Daily Express.

Even Irish officials, comrades in arms of the Brussels bureaucrats and co-residents in the Brexit trenches with the Brussels bureaucrats shrug and admit it: the EU is having a dreadful pandemic.

That perception was heightened by the disastrous attempt by the European Commission to use emergency provisions to block vaccines from entering Northern Ireland last week. Though quickly abandoned, the commission’s move has inflamed unionist opinion and put the EU on the defensive politically in a way not seen throughout the whole Brexit process.

Even supporters of the EU – and strong support for the EU is the default position among most of the Irish political and governing class – acknowledge that the past year has been something of an annus horribilis for the bloc.

But sometimes a snappy judgment that fits into a tabloid headline is not the whole story; the truth is rather more complex.

While the EU’s management of its vaccine supply has been slow and cumbersome compared to both the United States and the United Kingdom, and its attempt to institute a common travel framework has ended in shreds, the EU has also effectively underwritten the vast deficit spending that has sustained governments and societies for much of the past year. The EU’s handling of the pandemic has had plenty of low points; but critics tend to ignore the things it got right.

The crisis arrives

Italy was the canary in the coal mine: the first clusters were detected in late February of last year, followed quickly by the first deaths, and then the first lockdowns. At the same time, travellers from other parts of Europe were still departing for ski vacations in the Italian Alps.

The gravity of the situation became brutally clear on March 6th, when Italy’s professional association of anaesthesiologists issued guidance to health workers on how to pick which patients to save when there was not enough equipment or doctors to go around.

Within days, Austria had closed its border with Italy, followed by a cascade of similar measures by the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain.

The unravelling of freedom of movement, which left EU citizens stranded as they attempted to commute cross-border to work or return home from abroad, gave the commission its first challenge. But the power of the commission to intervene was severely constrained. Health and borders are purely national powers, meaning that up until that point it was unclear how the EU could collectively respond to the pandemic. Keeping truck routes from snarling up and cross-border lives from being disrupted was the first issue on which EU national governments looked up from firefighting the burgeoning pandemic emergency at home, and began to co-operate.

But soon member states were pitted against each other in a mad scramble for PPE. The competition was rancorous: Germany slapped export controls on equipment including ventilators, causing uproar in Italy. On both travel and medical equipment, agreement was reached to lift curbs within the EU at the price of enforcing them on the rest of the world. It was a shaky start, but enough to avert disaster.

Money

The next steps were financial, and more assured. The commission suspended the usual budget rules to give member states a free rein to borrow and spend. The European Central Bank launched a massive emergency bond-buying programme to keep debt cheap. And the commission opened its cheque book, offering cheap loans to member states to pay for unemployment support programmes, while pushing out money in funding for medical research, health systems, and cheap business loans.

This was a precursor to the truly ground-breaking moves of the summer. First, a pledging initiative that raised €15.9 billion “to help develop and ensure equitable access to coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments”. Then, a move previously considered unthinkable: joint borrowing, to the tune of €750 billion, to be pushed out to member states in a mix of grants and loans to counteract the economic impact of the pandemic.

The fact that Italian borrowing costs have remained steady, averting the prospect of the feared repeat of the euro zone debt crisis, is widely seen as proof of the success of these measures.

But the pandemic also drew the commission into taking on new roles in unfamiliar areas, and in these its record has been less positive.

In April 2020, commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced “it is time to look ahead and to focus on protecting livelihoods”, launching a plan aimed to co-ordinate EU-wide lifting of coronavirus containment measures. Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides announced that the “only way” was “to learn to live with this virus”.

The following month, the commission launched a plan to “reboot tourism” and “to allow people to take holidays and catch up with their friends and families”. Both were driven by economic concerns, particularly a clamour from airlines, the hospitality industry and tourism-dependent member states.

The short-sightedness is now apparent. A strain of Covid-19 that first emerged among Spanish farm workers in June accounted for 60 per cent of all cases in Ireland and 80 per cent of those in the UK by October, an international team of scientists found, indicating that holiday travel had fuelled the second wave that swept the continent, forcing renewed school closures and lockdowns in autumn.

Healthcare is a “national competence”, and member states have never successfully co-ordinated on their health policy responses to the pandemic. They listened to the commission, but when cases started to rise, they turned inward. They have different expert advice, different national circumstances, and a different balance of power between vying interests. In some member states health policy is not even nationally coherent, as it is under the control of regional powers. In France, quarantine lasts seven days: in most places, it is 10 or 14. Travel measures still vary across the continent. The EU’s attempt to institute a common “traffic-light” framework in the summer never succeeded in achieving its aim of a common EU-wide travel policy.

Vaccines

The global race for vaccines began almost as soon as the pandemic. Back in March, then-US president Donald Trump was offering cash to German biotech company CureVac to relocate to the US and exclusively produce its Covid-19 vaccine candidate there.

By April, Germany and France were working together on acquiring vaccines, a club soon joined by the Netherlands and Italy. Alarmed, smaller EU countries demanded the commission step in. A deal was done: the 27 would negotiate as a bloc, but the original four would each have a member on the seven-strong joint vaccine negotiating team, along with Portugal, Spain, and Poland. They set out to pick the most promising candidates out of roughly 150 candidate vaccines, based on promising early data and ability to manufacture at scale, and sign deals to lock down early supplies.

A key sticking point in the talks was liability. Pharmaceutical companies are used to being shielded from legal liability in the US if there are problems with a product made in an emergency. The joint EU team stuck out for the drugmakers to accept liability. The haggling prolonged negotiations.

The first contract was signed with AstraZeneca, in August, for up to 400 million doses of the vaccine developed with Oxford University in exchange for €336 million to pay for vaccine development and advance production, according to commission officials. This vaccine was cheap, produced at cost, and easy to roll out, not requiring deep-freeze storage. Deals with Sanofi for 300 million doses, and Johnson & Johnson for 400 million doses soon followed.

But the next candidate, BioNTech-Pfizer, was a harder sell with member states: more expensive and tricky to roll out, requiring deep freeze storage. It was also based on a less familiar technology.

Impatient, Germany began doing its own deals on the side with BioNTech and CureVac, both homegrown companies, in September. The commission closed three deals for the pricier mRNA vaccines in November, with CureVac (405 million doses), Moderna (160 million doses), and BioNTech-Pfizer (300 million doses, later doubled).

It is hard to find an Irish politician or official who believes the country would have been better off negotiating independently with the pharmaceutical companies. “The alternative would have been catastrophic, a bidding war between member states,” said Ciarán Cuffe, the Green MEP. This may be true, but the slow pace of the vaccine programme attests to one of the EU’s most basic difficulties: agreeing anything between 27 parties takes time. And in a vaccination programme, speed is of the essence.

Meanwhile, Israel, the UK and the US speeded up the rollout of their vaccination programmes as their national regulators granted emergency approval for their use. Technically, any EU member state could have done the same, though governments would have been on the hook for liability if anything went wrong.

Instead, the EU took the normal route of regulatory approval for the entire bloc at once through the European Medicines Agency, a more rigorous process that requires more evidence of safety and efficacy. Given high rates of vaccine scepticism on the continent, this was also widely seen as the wisest way forward.

There are plenty of questions however about the choice of which vaccines to purchase, when and in what quantities. The delay in finalising a deal with BioNTech-Pfizer is viewed poorly.

“Prioritising indemnity over speed of distribution of the vaccine, it appears now to have been a mistake because the losses in terms of GDP, in terms of jobs, completely outweigh the risks of having to pay out on indemnity. You’re talking about billions instead of millions,” said Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews. “That’s in hindsight, but that’s the reality, that was a bad call in the end.”

“In defence of the commission, the members states had to agree to every step of the procurement,” Andrews said. “We are Europeanising failure and nationalising success at every point.”

War with AstraZeneca

The subsequent delay in rolling out shots to citizens – at least in comparison with the UK and US – has coincided with a bad patch of the pandemic, particularly in Ireland. Faced with rising frustration from member states that were demanding more doses faster, and public opinion souring, the commission made a bid to seize control in the past fortnight. It has made an astonishing mess of it.

AstraZeneca’s announcement in January that it could deliver only 31 million doses to the EU by April was a shock to the commission, which had initially expected north of 100 million, and later 80 million. In response, the commission went on the offensive, suggesting that doses made in the EU had been unjustly shipped elsewhere and declaring it would publish its contract with the pharmaceutical company to show that it was in breach.

While AstraZeneca presented doses from British factories as being intended for Britain, and vice versa for the EU, the commission said four factories including two in the UK were named in its contract as sources of supply. The initial doses rolled out in the UK had also been made in the Netherlands and Germany.

In a power play, last week the commission announced it would require all pharmaceutical companies to declare what vaccines they were exporting from the EU and where. At the strong demand of France and Germany, this proposal was hardened into an export control regulation. Not only would pharmaceutical companies have to declare their exports, but they would have to receive permission from national governments to go ahead with them. If the doses were deemed to be contractually owed to the EU, they could refuse permission to export.

At some point, Northern Ireland’s special post-Brexit arrangements were identified as a potential loophole to the controls; in theory, the North could be a backdoor for vaccine exports to Britain. Article 16 was introduced into the text to allow member states to refuse permission for vaccine exports if they were deemed to be moving through Northern Ireland en route to Britain. When the proposed regulation was published, it kicked off a political storm that continues to rage through Belfast, London and Dublin. It was, Irish officials – generally the EU’s staunchest allies – said, the biggest mistake they could remember the commission making. It has deeply undermined von der Leyen. “The EU has been damaged,” says one Irish official. “A lot of this will come to rest on VDL. She’s not in danger. But she is damaged.”

Lessons

This is a particularly bad point for the EU in the pandemic. But by the summer, more than 400 million doses of EU-sourced vaccines are expected to have been administered to citizens, and life will have returned, if not to normal, then to a more congenial post-lockdown state.

But there is no doubt that the past 12 months have been replete with strategic mistakes and gaffes, and the EU would be foolish not to take account of that.

What messages can the EU learn? One is that it must constantly push for quicker decision-making. Humility is another lesson; it should learn from British successes on the vaccine. Though it no longer matters what the British newspapers think; let them gloat. The fact is on the most important measures – deaths from the virus – the UK has been one of the worst performers in the world. The performance of EU countries varies widely. That’s why much of the UK bombast is overblown: the EU is not responsible for the management of the pandemic in individual countries.

Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic is a lesson to the EU to stick to the things it’s good at. The pandemic has confirmed that while the EU is an economic superpower, it is very much not a superpower of practical government.

The current bout of flagellation will pass. Brussels will get over it. “There’s no doubt that the EU is pretty chastened,” says one Irish diplomat. “But it won’t remain so for ever.”

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