The EU and Vaccine Diplomacy

In the end, the EU and the UK stepped back from outright confrontation over the distribution and trade in vaccines against Covid.  Common sense, and more conciliatory voices, prevailed, and the EU will not after all ban AstraZeneca from exporting the vaccines it is making in Belgium.  Or at least, not yet: the EU’s communiqué after the Council meeting last Thursday contained a reminder that the position was still subject to review and they reserved the right to impose an export ban in the future.

It is not clear why the EU felt it necessary to say this:  while the statement is obviously true, as all positions are always subject to review, it does give the impression that their decision to step back from the brink was reluctant.  And this in turn suggests that they do not understand the damage that their stance has done.

And that damage is we think considerable.  The EU is very fond of quoting Jean Monnet’s saying that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”.  We think that at least as apposite a quote for the current situation is the observation by the 19th century US novelist James Lane Allen, “Crises do not build character, they reveal it”.  And this crisis – entirely of the EU’s own making – has revealed we think a number of aspects of the EU that bear reflection.

The first is that the tensions between the Commission and the member states are still very far from being resolved.  Repeatedly during the pandemic, the people of Europe have made it clear that they think along national lines and look to their national governments for solutions to the really challenging issues.  And the national governments have responded accordingly, with Communautaire solidarity an early casualty as each country has pursued its own path to handling the crisis.

This is not a new phenomenon; we saw exactly the same during the immigration controversies a few years ago, and at the start of the Eurozone’s financial crisis in 2010.  Once may be a random event, and twice a coincidence, but three times within little more than a decade is a trend.  And that trend is that when the going gets tough, the Commission finds it very difficult to exert its authority over the member states.

This is not entirely surprising.  All three of these crises share two common traits: first, that they go to the heart of national governments’ responsibilities to their citizens; and second, that they affect countries differently, so there is no obvious Union-wide solution.

But the trend is still very concerning for the Commission.  And for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, this particular episode of the general trend threatened to be extremely damaging.  Coming so early in her presidency (she took office only last December), and against a backdrop where she was not everyone’s choice and does not have everyone’s confidence by a long way, it had the capacity to derail her authority almost before she had started.  Unfortunately her response – high-handed, intemperate and not well thought-through – will merely add to the impression that she is not up to the job, and coming on top of her earlier gaffe over trade across the intra-Ireland border it has already, after less than 4 months of her presidency, started speculation that she may not be able to see out her five-year term.

The second aspect of the EU that has been highlighted is quite how tired, damaged and under pressure the top leadership of the Union is.  Both Merkel, on her way out and unaccustomedly unpopular at home, and Macron, under considerable pressure as the next presidential election approaches (it is due to be held in early 2022 and he is by no means sure of re‑election), have been less than sure-footed, and have seemed querulous and uncertain.  Already under attack because of the slowness of the vaccine programmes, defending the hapless von der Leyen has drained their authority even further.

The third point that emerges is that the Commission is too rigid in its approach to a crisis, too cautious, and too concerned not to do the wrong thing (whether it be spending money or taking a risk with approving vaccines quickly), with the result that it ends up looking leaden‑footed and knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  If ever there was a case for spending money liberally and taking a chance, the search for a vaccine for the disease which was destroying society and claiming lives like nothing ever before in the EU’s 60-year history would seem to be it, yet still von der Leyen and her Commission agonised about opening the purse strings, worried about precipitous approval of vaccines.

And this in turn is symptomatic of another facet of the EU, the fourth of our seven.  This is its inability to bend, let alone break, its rules, even when common sense cries out for greater flexibility and sensitivity.  The EU repeats its mantra that it is a “rules-based organisation”, and that the rules must be obeyed, so much so that one begins to discern the fear in Brussels that it is indeed only the rules that keep the Union together – that adherence to the EU is strictly on a transactional basis, justified on cost-benefit terms and maintained by a rule book rather than any deeper feeling of loyalty and solidarity among the people of Europe either to their fellow citizens or to the Union itself.

This is not of course to deny that the EU has brought many benefits to the member states – the cementing of peace, the increasing prosperity and the extension of democratic freedoms to states which had in many cases lost all three in the aftermath of World War II.  But the EU of today shows every sign of completely failing to understand that it is there to serve the peoples of Europe not control and restrain them.

The biblical test of good rules is summarised in the saying that “the Sabbath is made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath”.  Looking at the EU’s handling of so many situations, ranging from the vaccines, to the situation in Ireland (where the “defence” of the Good Friday Agreement is causing huge disruption and inconvenience to the very people the Agreement is designed to help and bring peace to), to the brutal handling of Greece in its financial woes a few years ago (“this is for your own good and we don’t care what damage it does to you”), to the trivial but vindictive refusal to allow truck-drivers from the UK to bring so much as a sandwich into the EU for their lunch (because to do so breaches the rules of the Single Market and may even if left unchecked cause the collapse of the Common Agricultural Policy), at every turn the EU is the epitome of “the People are made for the Rules, not the Rules for the People”.  There is no finesse, no understanding, no tolerance, no application of common sense.

The fifth aspect that the vaccines crisis has starkly revealed is the EU’s inability to understand the wider international picture.  The West faces a growing challenge from a resurgent and hostile China, and aggressive threats and meddling from Russia, and as part of this there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of the 120 or so countries that are at the moment not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc.  China, Russia and India know this, and all three have been quick to engage in “vaccine diplomacy”, offering developing countries supplies of vaccines as “a gift from the people of …”.

It is not a good time for the EU to be seen to be talking about banning exports, hoarding vaccines and generally acting on the most selfish of principles – especially as, due to the careless scaremongering of its leaders, the Union is not even using all the vaccine doses it has stockpiled, as people reject the AstraZeneca vaccine even when offered it.

The sixth facet of the EU we would highlight – and our international readers will we hope forgive us here for a parochial moment – is a subset of this inward-looking approach to international diplomacy and greater concern with how the EU looks to its own people than how it looks to everyone else.

This is the continuing need in Brussels to criticise the UK and everything it does.  For true believers in the EU project, it is self-evident that the UK’s decision to leave the Union was a moment of collective national stupidity, and it is necessary that the UK is seen by the people of the EU to be harmed by it.

This sentiment came to dominate the EU-UK talks on future relations, where for some in Brussels the objective was not to find a “win-win” outcome, or even a “EU-win” outcome, but to enforce a “UK-lose” one – whatever else happened, the UK must be demonstrably worse off for having left the Union.  Even pro-EU Remainers in the UK (and – personal note – I was one of their number in 2016), have been successively surprised, then confused, then dismayed and eventually increasingly irritated by the EU’s approach to the Brexit discussions.

And it now dominates the EU’s reaction to the disparity between the UK’s and their own vaccination programmes.  Even the common fight against a terrible disease is seen not as a chance to start to mend fences with their near neighbour but as a further opportunity to score points, to show their own people how wrong the UK is and by implication how right they are.

Since it pains them either to admit their own mis-steps, or that the UK has for once played the situation better than them, they seek other explanations.  And so the EU spreads the word abroad that the UK has cut corners, that it did not test the vaccines properly before approving them, that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not safe, that the UK is banning exports of serum ingredients and putting pressure on vaccine manufacturers to dishonour their commitments to the EU;  in short, that the EU is being forced, reluctantly, to respond to extreme provocation and vaccine nationalism from Perfidious Albion[1].

And this leads to our final observation from the events of the last week, that the EU still finds it immensely difficult to admit its errors, or to concede that there are instances where the centralised Commission-led approach may not after all be best.  Macron did finally admit that the Union had let its people down with its vaccine programme[2], but his exact words – “We didn’t shoot for the stars.  That should be a lesson for all of us.  We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness I would say, to say: It’s possible, let’s do it” – while better than nothing, are a half-hearted apology at best, and show no sign of accepting that nation states might have handled the matter better if they had been allowed to[3].     

Jean Monnet’s saying that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises” remains true.  But the Europe that is being forged by and is emerging from recent crises – the financial crisis, the Greek crisis, Brexit, the immigration crisis and now the pandemic – is not an altogether attractive one:  nervous, rigid, defensive, inward‑looking, prone to errors, and prioritising process above people and its rules above both.

And perhaps saddest of all, as the international rivalry between China and America hots up, increasingly irrelevant on the international stage.


[1]               I am indebted to a number of friends who live overseas who have commented to me that their local media are carrying all of these stories as “facts”, in every case emanating from an EU source.

[2]              On Greek television – one assumes the choice of such a relatively obscure platform was not an accident – on 25 March, but (perhaps unfortunately for Macron) widely reported;  see eg

[3]              And even in this apology, Macron could not resist a dig at the UK:  his comments were accompanied, extraordinarily, by praise for the United States for being willing to act aggressively and imaginatively but criticism for the UK for doing exactly the same thing!