Pandemic has shown the EU’s resilience, not its frailty

Europe’s Covid story has not yet been written, and it is possible a longer view might be more forgiving

Crises have always been an accelerant for EU integration. Agreement on massive joint debt issuance to finance grants to recession-hit member states broke a long-standing taboo. Photograph: Getty Images

Crises have always been an accelerant for EU integration. Agreement on massive joint debt issuance to finance grants to recession-hit member states broke a long-standing taboo. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It’s an iron law of political commentary that the European Union cannot have problems, only existential crises. While governments may suffer any number of blows or setbacks and expect to make a full recovery, for the EU the prognosis, whatever the ailment, is invariably the same: death, swift and painful.

In the past decade alone its terminal conditions have included Brexit, a recession, the north-south austerity standoff, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the migrant surge of 2014-15, the rule-of-law debate, terrorism and the rise of the far-right.

Not all of these have passed – nationalists remain a political force and democratic drift in Hungary and Poland has driven a deep wedge through the club – but the pattern is clear nonetheless: shocks have tended to reveal resilience, not frailty. Usually what emerges is not a ravaged husk but something stronger than before.

Germany injected a record 720,000 doses on Thursday, and expects to give 3.5 million shots a week by early next month

How the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest of these crises, will shape the union is still an open question. Its handling of the vaccination programme is widely portrayed as a fiasco that exposed the limitations of a slow, risk-averse bureaucracy. The failures have been clear and well catalogued. But the story of Europe’s pandemic has not yet been written, and it is at least plausible that a longer view might be more forgiving.

Between the bitter competition over personal protective equipment last spring and the recriminations over vaccine distribution this year, the pandemic has hardly been a unifying force in Europe. But crises have always been an accelerant for EU integration, and this one has been true to that tradition. Agreement on massive joint debt issuance to finance grants to recession-hit member states broke a long-standing taboo.

And it’s not hard to see in the debates over drug supply chains and the flaws of the common vaccine procurement scheme the genesis of a European health union that could mitigate future risks.

Effective

Of more immediate significance, however, is something that you could easily have missed, which is (whisper it) that the EU’s vaccination programme is beginning to look rather effective.

The announcement this week that 50 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are to be brought forward to the second quarter comes after several weeks of rapid acceleration in administration rates across Europe.

France, whose slow rollout seemed to symbolise the continent’s problems a few months ago, is now powering ahead. Its target of 10 million vaccinations by April 15th was reached a week early, and it is set to double that total within a month.

Germany injected a record 720,000 doses on Thursday, and expects to give 3.5 million shots a week by early next month.

The daily vaccination rates in Italy and the Netherlands are now comparable, on a per capita basis, to that of the US, which is winning praise for getting shots into arms at remarkable speed.

It’s a similar story in smaller European states, including Ireland, which are receiving weekly deliveries at a scale that would have been unthinkable had they been forced to negotiate deals of their own with manufacturers.

In the week that the EU passed the 100 million vaccination landmark all of this looks suspiciously like success.

Playing out against a background of pre-existing tensions, the pandemic response has inevitably become a proxy war in the larger debate over the union’s future

Some of the good news in Europe has been tempered by surging infection numbers and ongoing delays to AstraZeneca vaccine deliveries, as well as restrictions that some member states have put on its use following reports of possible links to extremely rare blood clots.

Johnson & Johnson’s decision to pause distribution of its own vaccine in the EU pending reviews of similar clots has also set back delivery timetables.

But in contrast to the dithering that critics say marked Brussels’s early approach to talks with the pharma companies, the European Commission this week signalled an early strategic shift away from the adenovirus-based vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, with whom it will not seek any future contracts, and placed a big bet instead on the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer, Moderna and Curevac products, which president Ursula von der Leyen said had “proven its worth”.

In anticipation of a need for booster shots, the commission hopes to secure 1.8 billion Pfizer doses for 2022 and 2023.

Limits

Even taking account of the limits on AstraZeneca’s vaccine and the pause on that of Johnson & Johnson, the EU is still on track to achieve its aim of having 70 per cent of the union’s population vaccinated by mid-July. In all likelihood the EU and the UK will end their vaccination marathons around the same time.

Nobody can seriously argue that Europe has had a good pandemic. The death toll has been very high, co-ordination has been lacking, and memories of the mistakes on vaccination procurement are still fresh.

Playing out against a background of pre-existing tensions – over Brexit, over democratic values, over the pace of integration itself – the pandemic response has inevitably become a proxy war in the larger debate over the union’s future.

In the white heat of the moment, the gaps between success and failure can seem vanishingly small. But with the continent now contemplating the increasingly plausible scenario of a quasi-normal summer, in which vaccinated Europeans can flock to the Mediterranean on their holidays, the prevailing account of the EU’s existential crisis could yet need a rewrite.

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