The development of Covid-19 vaccines has been a scientific marvel, offering a way out of a catastrophic pandemic. It is the source of hope of life returning to something like normal. For the EU, though, it seems to be a source of perpetual embarrassment.
Time and again on vaccine issues the EU has found itself on the wrong side of the argument. Its case tends to strengthen over time — by which point the reputational damage is done. Vindication is hard to come by.
First came the procurement. Brussels was too slow to sign contracts and paid insufficient attention to ensuring that the production capacity was in place to meet them.
The European Commission was excoriated for its botched purchases, especially in Germany. But had it not been for AstraZeneca signing contracts with the EU and UK which it could not simultaneously fulfil, the procurement was largely a success.
The bloc is on course to receive 400m doses by the end of next month. Germany is now administering nearly 700,000 jabs a day. The EU should be able to inoculate 70 per cent of its adult population this summer, not long after the UK or US.
When EU fury boiled over at AstraZeneca’s missed deliveries, the commission picked a fight with Britain and introduced export controls to countries that refused to show reciprocity with supplies.
The move did little to solve AstraZeneca’s production problems but did a lot to portray the EU as a hoarder trying to cover up its earlier procurement errors. The world’s second-biggest exporter of vaccines after China has been trying to correct the perception ever since.
“They ended up labelled, largely unfairly, as vaccines protectionists,” says Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It has made it much harder for the EU to present itself as the “pharmacy to the world” as Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, is now trying to do.
“Europe’s long-term interest is to be the biggest vaccine producer in the world. The message has to be: look, we’ll leave your supply chains alone. That’s the European interest the commission should have articulated from the beginning.”
Then last week, the EU was wrongfooted when the Biden administration came out in support of waiving vaccine patents, despite European opposition, as a way of boosting supplies to poorer countries.
The EU, which has shipped almost as many doses abroad as the nearly 200m it has administered at home, was made to look the villain of the global community. The US has “loaned” a few million to Mexico and Canada, although it has promised to share up to 60m doses.
Whether the EU was taken by surprise or was unable to dissuade Washington, it was a failure of diplomacy.
EU officials regard the US move as a public relations coup to please the Democratic Party base. Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, described it as “American glitter”.
While some EU leaders do not want to appear intransigent on the IP waiver issue, they mostly agree that it is a distraction from the more pressing issue of expanding near-term production capacity through licensing deals and sharing technology.
But that puts the onus on the EU to come up with industrial solutions for increasing production and for sharing its own supplies, due to expand vastly in the second half of the year, with developing countries. When it comes to a crisis between the rich world and poorer countries over vaccine supplies, America has a talking point. But Europe has to deliver.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, says the EU message of vaccine openness to the world while supplying its domestic needs has been compromised by the instincts of its own member governments which are eager to keep supplies for themselves.
“It is quite remarkable what the EU has achieved. But they never quite succeed in telling the story,” she says. “That’s because the member states don’t have much interest in telling the collective story.”
History will look more kindly on the EU’s vaccine successes. But, for EU leaders, it feels like one long trial.