EU’s ambitions exposed as vaccine procurement used to boost ‘control over health policy’

Ursula von der Leyen details Next Generation EU recovery plan

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After a slow start, the bloc’s efforts to vaccinate its vast population against COVID-19 has transformed into a success. It initially lagged behind most of the developed world, including the UK, a result of Brussels bureaucracy and a lack of communication with vaccine companies. Now, however, the bloc as a whole has overtaken the US in terms of first and second doses per 100 people, and should surpass the UK in the next few weeks if it maintains its current inoculation rate.

Critics claimed the way the EU is set up and the way it deals with policy – approaching the means, not the ends, first – doomed any immediate vaccination success.

While states like the UK pushed ahead with vaccine procurement in order to serve those who voted leaders in, voters in the EU, by contrast, have little direct say on the legislative direction of the bloc.

Policies, then, become the means of accomplishing quite different ends.

Chris Bickerton, a lecturer at Cambridge University who focuses on internal relations, comparative politics and Europe, claimed the means in the COVID-19 scenario translated to the European Commission gaining “greater control” over the bloc’s health policy, as opposed to efficiently securing vaccines.

In an opinion for the New York Times earlier this year, he wrote: “So what was it about?

“One goal, clearly, was to increase the power of EU institutions — notably the European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen.

“By centralising vaccine procurement in its hands, it sought greater control over the bloc’s health policy.

“Such transfers of responsibility are rarely reversed, even if the policies themselves are a failure.

“This is what Professor Giandomenico Majone [an Italian professor of political science] called ‘integration by stealth.'”

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European leaders suggested a centralised vaccine strategy would also give meaning to an EU struggling to find its place in a turbulent political environment.

Professor Julian Lindley-French, an internationally recognised strategic analyst and advisor in defence, previously told that the tools Ms von der Leyen and the EU had on the international stage were “extremely limited beyond declaratory comments”.

However, as Mr Bickerton suggested, the experiment to unify the bloc amid a global health crisis came at an unfavourable time.

He said: “It was a breathtakingly reckless gamble that didn’t come off.”


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We know now that the “gamble” did, in part, come off, but countless lives were likely lost as a result of a sluggish procurement effort.

Brussels’ failure culminated in a short-lived vaccine war, in which the bloc threatened to cut-off supplies heading to the UK from production facilities on the continent.

At the time, Dr John McCauley, the Director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre, a World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centres for Influenza, said Ms von der Leyen and her colleagues’ actions were risking people’s lives.

He told “We’ve got to bear in mind what Jonathan Van Tam said: that there’s no point in having vaccines sitting in the fridge, because it does nothing.

“You need it in people’s arms. Every day is a delay. People die every day.

“You stop vaccinating for a day, it isn’t those people, but it’s the people in the future.

“People are going to die because of a one day delay that they needn’t have done.”

By July, however, the EU met its target of administering one jab to 70 percent of adults.

In six weeks, it should hit its next target of fully vaccinating 70 percent of all adults.

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