The EU’s reputation has taken a hit over its conduct of vaccine procurement. The content of the charge sheet is now well known. The union bargained hard on price and liability with manufacturers and failed to insert “Europe first” provisions into contracts. It then found itself with much lower levels of supply than others who had paid a premium for early delivery, accepted liability if things went wrong, drafted tighter contracts and approved vaccines more quickly.
Although the situation is likely to improve rapidly from April on, given the grave consequences of delays to the vaccine programme, people are entitled to expect political accountability.
With little chance of the president of the European Commission or the EU commissioner for health resigning or being removed from office, for some, the long-established Eurosceptic critique of the EU as an unaccountable organisation seems to have been strengthened.
European citizens are entitled to be unsatisfied with the level of accountability provided thus far and to think that it shows problems with ensuring accountable decision-making in the EU. But the problem may not lie where most of the union’s critics think.
The union’s system does provide mechanisms for accountability. What has been lacking is political will at EU level and proper engagement by national politicians in relation to the actions of member states.
The European Commission is accountable for its actions to the European Parliament. President Ursula von der Leyen and Commissioner Stella Kyriakides have both been questioned by MEPs in relation to their actions. It is true that no heads have rolled and that the level of detail provided by both to MEPs was unsatisfactory. But this is not due to a structural flaw in the EU; it was because of a lack of political will on the part of MEPs to force the issue.
All too often national politicians shift responsibility to Brussels for unpopular or unsuccessful EU decisions to which they themselves had quietly agreed
Legally, the European Parliament can fire the commission if it wishes just as the House of Commons can topple the UK government. British MPs have not had the political desire to remove any Conservative ministers from office despite the many missteps of the British government. Similarly, MEPs, for a mix of reasons from party loyalty (Von der Leyen’s group, the EPP, is the largest in the parliament) to an understandable desire not to use the nuclear option immediately, have not sought to remove the commission.
In fact, the greater problem in terms of accountability for EU decisions lies at national, not EU level. The reality is that, given the division of powers between the member states and EU institutions, it was not possible for Brussels to have taken the key decisions on vaccine policy without the agreement of member states.
In the vast majority of cases when the EU acts, it can do so only when a majority of member states (and sometimes every member state) agrees on the course of action. This particularly applies in an area such as public health where the EU holds few powers.
In relation to vaccine policy, the EU approach was designed by the commission and a steering group of seven member states that referred back key decisions to a broader group of all 27 states. Some of the states now most critical of the EU played important roles in shaping the policy or, at the time, wanted a more frugal, less urgent approach from the union.
The Polish government, for example, wanted the EU to buy fewer Pfizer/Moderna mRNA vaccines on grounds of cost but now complains that not enough vaccine was procured. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has also become a vocal critic, ignoring the fact that the steering group of member states that designed the EU policy in conjunction with the commission was chaired by his own state.
It is national accountability for decisions taken by national politicians at EU level that is the real problem. All too often national politicians shift responsibility to Brussels for unpopular or unsuccessful EU decisions to which they themselves had quietly agreed.
Historically, Irish politicians have a very poor record of holding governments to account for their actions at EU level. In relation to vaccine policy there has been little detailed questioning of the role played by the Irish Government. Did Ireland agree with the approach to pricing and liability for example? As yet we don’t know as politicians seem to have accepted that EU procurement decisions were nothing to do with the Irish Government instead of holding Irish politicians accountable for whatever role they may have played in the EU process.
It is only if member state governments are held to account for their role in EU decision-making that accountability can be achieved. Certainly, MEPs need to hold EU institutions accountable for their actions. But national bodies like the Dáil also need to hold national politicians accountable for their role in decisions at EU level and must not be fobbed off by attempts to shift the blame to Brussels.
Given the extent of European integration, many of the key policy dilemmas of the next decade will be decided at EU level. But any decisions purportedly taken by Brussels will, in fact, be the outcome of decisions taken by national politicians in co-operation with EU officials.
Unless our politicians can summon the interest and resolve to hold those national politicians accountable for their actions at EU level, the European Union may begin to undermine democratic accountability in the way its enemies have always claimed.
Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London