Politics

The Observer view on the vaccine dispute with Brussels | Observer editorial


The European commission’s U-turn over its reckless plan to effectively blockade the Ireland-Northern Ireland border is the latest humiliation suffered by Brussels amid an escalating firestorm sparked by Covid-19 vaccine supply shortages across Europe. The commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has made a series of mistakes and misjudgments in handling the pandemic over the past year. This latest blunder will intensify doubts about her leadership.

It is extraordinary that Von der Leyen and senior colleagues did not appear to appreciate how unwise, and potentially dangerous for the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, was their move to impose back-door vaccine import controls on the UK using Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol. This had to be personally spelled out to her by Boris Johnson and the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin. Both expressed “deep unhappiness” – code for utter fury and amazement.

The shambles in Brussels did not begin with this row, nor is Von der Leyen the only culprit. A palpable sense of panic has gripped EU leaders in recent days as public anger has understandably grown over Europe-wide vaccine shortfalls. In France, Spain and elsewhere, vaccination schedules are in turmoil. People in the most vulnerable groups are being turned away. As demands for an explanation rise, political blame-shifting has reached a new level.

AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company, has emerged as the scapegoat of choice for European politicians and bureaucrats anxious to avoid taking responsibility. Its outstanding success, sparked by a brilliant team of scientists and researchers at Oxford University, in producing a highly effective, easily administered, at-cost vaccine seems too much to stomach for the likes of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president.

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France has, sadly, failed to produce its own vaccine. Last week, the celebrated Pasteur Institute abandoned its main vaccine project, while the French pharma group, Sanofi, also admitted temporary defeat. French leaders have taken this hard. “It’s a sign of the decline of the country,” said Macron ally François Bayrou. He blamed the United States for a French “brain drain”.

Macron took aim elsewhere. In remarkably ill-informed comments on Friday, he regurgitated erroneous German claims that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in use in the UK was “ineffective” among people aged over 65. He also suggested, again without evidence, that the company, and the UK government, had engaged in “questionable behaviour”.

It’s no surprise that a French leader, down in the polls ahead of elections next year and feeling the heat, should unfairly pick on Britain. Less expected have been unhelpful interventions by other European politicians, notably German health minister, Jens Spahn. While Spahn amplified doubts about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, others were complaining, perversely, about supply cuts – all as the European regulator dithered over approving its use, which it finally did on Friday.

Low-quality European leadership has been a problem since the start of the pandemic. The commission belatedly realised last spring that it was in a global vaccine race, not least with Donald Trump. It allowed four countries – Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands – to lead negotiations with possible suppliers. Then in June, Von der Leyen and her equally unimpressive health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, fatefully changed their minds.

For political, not scientific or practical reasons, they opted to involve all 27 member states in vaccine acquisition decision-making, with the commission in overall charge – in order to demonstrate EU “solidarity” and the power of the single market. This led to an EU contract with AstraZeneca, ready for signature in June, being delayed until August. Other vaccine pre-orders were also held up. The US company Moderna warned in November that this approach would inevitably slow vaccine delivery across the EU.

The EU claim that AstraZeneca failed to honour its contractual obligations – the issue that has led it, against World Health Organization (WHO) advice, to introduce blanket controls on vaccine exports – must be seen in this context: panicky leadership in Brussels, national blame-games, bureaucratic and regulatory tardiness, post-Brexit anti-British animus and no-fault production problems, such as those experienced by Pfizer as well as AstraZeneca’s Belgian and Dutch plants. The WHO warns that Europe’s vaccine controls will prolong the global pandemic.

The vaccine crisis has shown the EU at its worst. By contrast, it has shown Britain at its best. Early government purchasing decisions were crucial. The rollout, overseen by Kate Bingham’s taskforce, has been efficiently managed so far by a grand coalition of NHS workers, GPs’ surgeries, pharmacies and volunteers. Now comes new data suggesting vaccinations are having a real impact in reducing infections and slowing the pandemic. Immunity is said to continue to build a month after a single dose is administered.

As of Friday, more than 11% of the UK population had been vaccinated compared with 2.3% in Germany and 1.8% in France. These figures give a stark measure of relative EU incapacity. At the end of a week that saw a grim milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths in Britain, the UK’s vaccine success story is a bright star in a gloomy firmament. Incompetence in Brussels must by no means be allowed to obstruct this encouraging progress. As for the EU, it should get its house in order – quickly.



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