How Europe’s coronavirus vaccine program failed

Apr 7, 2021

Alain Walravens, 63, is waiting to be invited for a first coronavirus vaccination. So are Marion Pochet, 71, a retired translator, and her husband, Jean-Marc. At least, Ms. Pochet said, they both have had Covid-19, “so we have some immunity, at least for the moment.”

Waiting for a vaccination at a center in Munich on March 21.

All three are sharply critical of the European Union, which took control of vaccine procurement and distribution and is widely considered to have done worse than its main partners, the United States and Britain, let alone Israel, which have all gotten vaccines into a much larger percentage of their populations than Europe.

So far, only about 11 percent of the bloc’s population has received at least one vaccine shot, compared with 46 percent in Britain and 29 percent in the United States.

As European countries lock down again in a third wave of the virus, the reputation and credibility of the European Union and its executive arm, the European Commission, are much in play.

“This is the fault of the European Union,” said Mr. Walravens, an events organizer.

“In other countries where the vaccination is going faster, there are real results,” he added. “The number of cases is going down. Here in Belgium, the hospitals are getting saturated.”

A vaccination at a pharmacy in Paris on March 19.

For decades, the European Union has sold itself not just as the best antidote to another European war, but as “the Europe that protects,” arguing that by its collective size and shared sovereignty, it will deliver a better, longer and more prosperous life to all. That promise now looks hollow, and risks undermining the bloc’s credibility when it comes to major challenges like climate change, migration and a rising China.

Brussels has always taken pride in its technocratic rule-setting for the world, but it has just lost Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, and even before the pandemic was suffering from low growth and a shrinking share of global trade.

After every crisis, whether it was Kosovo or the euro debt disaster, the usual answer is “more Europe.” But unless Brussels can turn matters around quickly, its vaccine crisis may cause member states to resist granting further authority to the Commission.

“This has been catastrophic for the reputation of the European Union,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the start of the crisis, as nations erected borders and hoarded protective equipment, masks and gowns, there was a huge desire for European cooperation, he said, “not because people liked the E.U. or its institutions, but because they were so absent.”

But the question now, he said, is buyer’s remorse. “The E.U. waded into an area with no expertise and competence and put a spotlight on itself,” he said. “In the minds of many who look at the U.K. and U.S. and Israel, they think we’re doing badly because of European cooperation, and that will have a corrosive impact in other areas.”

Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, said that the “fundamental legitimacy” of the bloc came less from its democratic institutions, which are weak, than from its performance, which is how it will be judged. Its real legitimacy, he said, “is what it delivers for Europeans.”

But the bloc’s other major initiative, a groundbreaking pandemic recovery fund, has yet to be put in place and is dwarfed by American stimulus packages.

While national leaders commonly take credit for every success and blame the Commission for every failure, the pandemic has displayed the vulnerabilities of a bureaucracy with weak and divided leadership. An effort by the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor, to enhance her power and profile by grabbing vaccine procurement from member states has proved disastrous.

“It was not a bad idea to do something about vaccines on the E.U. level, to avoid competition inside,” Mr. Garton Ash said. While Ms. von der Leyen bears responsibility, he said, ‘‘it’s also a failure in the way Brussels thinks and works, which is very bureaucratic and terribly frightened about doing something that might offend a member state.”

Even Guy Verhofstadt, a European Parliament member and fierce European federalist, called the Commission’s performance “a fiasco.”

Plucked into the job as a last-minute compromise engineered by President Emmanuel Macron of France, Ms. von der Leyen was considered a poor administrator as German defense minister, relying on a tight circle of advisers and very image conscious. In Brussels, she is known as “the minister of self-defense” and is thought to have overreached on vaccines.

Ms. von der Leyen “thought she had found the niche where the E.U. could be a trailblazer, like climate change,’’ said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador and risk consultant. “She and the E.U are staking their reputations on handling the pandemic.”

“Right now the E.U. has come up against its limitations,” he added.

Ms. von der Leyen has admitted mistakes. “We were late to authorize,” she told the European Parliament. “We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”

But there have been many moments of blaming others, especially Britain and the producers. “We’re tired of being the scapegoat,” she said more recently.

Still, as much as countries like Germany and France have fumbled inoculations, the latest figures show that Europe’s real problem is slower-than-expected procurement of vaccines themselves, causing every state to scramble for more.

And Ms. von der Leyen’s decision to start a public “vaccine war” with Britain and instituting an export ban threatens to undermine Europe’s reputation as the defender of open trade and the rules-based international system.

Even her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, told the BBC that an export ban could do “major reputational damage” to the bloc.

“The commission is weaker since Von der Leyen came into office,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament from the Greens.

Its communications efforts were ‘‘a mess,” he said. For Europe “to export 40 million jabs and then to be accused of being vaccine nationalists is a real achievement,” he said bitterly.

François Heisbourg, a French analyst, said simply: “The commission is not a government, but a box-ticking rule-based administrator. It was never designed to run a war.”

But Mr. Heisbourg and others note that Britain and the United States badly mismanaged the pandemic’s start and suffered large numbers of deaths. New virus variants could create further havoc, but more vaccines are coming, and Ms. von der Leyen says Europe plans to inoculate 70 percent of the bloc’s adults by September.

Brussels also points with pride to the bloc’s recovery fund, more than half in grants, to help countries badly hit. But it is relatively small, about 750 billion euros ($884 billion), and Brussels must still approve each nation’s spending plan. So again, implementation will be key to how Brussels is judged.

“The recovery fund shows a solidarity that is much appreciated by Europeans,” said Katarina Barley, vice president of the European Parliament. “There we don’t see the benefits yet, but in a year or two people might look back differently.”

Europeans will look to see how fast their economies rebound compared with the United States and Britain, Mr. Stefanini said. “That will show real figures and not just talk.”

For the European Union, Mr. Leonard said, “this is so much more concrete than the euro crisis or even the migration crisis that it could be devastating.”

‘‘The E.U. needs to turn it around, to earn the right to act on crucial issues like climate change and economic recovery, on digital taxation and foreign policy, all the areas people want E.U. action,” he added. ‘‘If the E.U. is not able to rise to the challenge now, it will undermine its ability to tackle all these other issues.”
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Credit: The New York Times

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