The Covid vaccination campaign is a better advertisement for Brexit than even Brexiteers could have imagined. Hasn’t the newly liberated Britain, freed from the shackles of EU membership, shown what it’s capable of?
The evidence couldn’t be clearer: 19% of the British population has already received a first vaccination, compared with barely 1.5% of the EU’s. Malta, the EU country out in front, is still only on 8%. Surely a case of “game, set and match”, as John Major so proudly declared back in December 1991, having won the UK’s opt-out from the Maastricht treaty?
Sorry, but the reality is a little more complex – and not quite such a stunning UK victory.
True, Britain got a month’s head start on the EU by approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the start of December, and then AstraZeneca’s at the end of that month. It had to accept the terms offered by the pharmaceutical companies, however, both in paying a higher price per dose, and by waiving their civil liability in the event of adverse effects.
But, and there’s a very big but, the UK’s “success” is a really an illusion: because to be fully effective, the vaccine requires two doses. And only 0.80% of the UK population has received both shots, less than that of France (0.92%), and a long way behind Denmark, which has 2.87% of its population fully vaccinated.
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Above all, extending the time lag between first and the second doses, as the UK has done, potentially carries risks. So Brexit Britain’s triumph doesn’t seem quite so striking, even if the logistics of rollout – which are handled by national health ministries and have no EU involvement – are more efficient in the UK than in most European countries.
The EU does not have, and never will have, the flexibility of a country: it is not even a federation but a simple confederation, which only has the powers that its member states are willing to give it. Bear in mind, too, that the EU had no experience in public health before the start of the Covid crisis. With only an embryonic union for health policy in place, the 27 member states had to improvise. This was essential to avoid a repeat of the deadly free-for-all that we saw last March on masks and medical equipment, as member states tried to outbid each other, Germany and France blocked consignments of PPE leaving their territories, and Italy was left to beg for help.
When it came to vaccines, the 27 agreed very early on, under the leadership of Berlin and Paris, to pool procurement. All agreed to guarantee that each would have equal access, proportionate to their population size, and above all, that each would apply the same vaccine purchase conditions. Otherwise, how would, say, Luxembourg or Finland have fared against the pharmaceutical giants?
This joint strategy was adopted in June 2020, just three months after the start of the pandemic, and the commission was delegated, under the close control of the member states, to negotiate contracts with the most promising laboratories: a series of bets, since there was no vaccine at the time. The EU together set out the demands it wanted met in exchange for financial aid aimed at speeding up production (€2.7bn). These demands included refusing to exempt laboratories from civil liability, insisting that the companies owned production lines on EU territory – an essential precaution at a time of temporary border closures – and, finally, reasonable prices. Not all these conditions were imposed by the US, the UK, Canada or Israel (which has also agreed to supply patients’ data to the pharma companies).
Of the 160 laboratories that sought to conclude deals with the EU, only six were awarded contracts, totalling 2.3bn shots. Of these six, three obtained authorisation from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which took the time required to ensure that the vaccines were safe. Two more are expected to follow. All of which amounts to a huge collective success in terms of securing supplies.
Of course, Germany or France acting alone, as the UK did, might have been able to secure enough vaccines to meet their needs, but certainly not under conditions as favourable. Most important of all, smaller countries would have been left high and dry.
Solidarity is one of the great virtues of the European Union and it has implemented it without complaint, not only among its citizens but also with regard to the rest of the world. African countries in particular will benefit from the surplus jabs ordered by the EU. And this is a well thought out solidarity, by the way, since only vaccinating Europe’s population makes no sense in a globalised world.
Could the EU have moved with more speed? No doubt, but it would have had to kowtow more to big pharma, and would have been roundly criticised for doing so. Likewise, blaming Brussels for what are essentially production issues is just nonsense: first, production is down to the manufacturing firms and, second, they have never before had to deliver such volumes in such tight timeframes.
With an entirely new and complex vaccine technology such as the RNA messenger, rolling out production on this scale is obviously a challenge. This is why the French drug maker Sanofi will only be ready to release vaccines produced under its licensing agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech by June at the earliest.
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It is true that the EU made one massive blunder. And it can be blamed entirely on the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, not the EU as a whole. By rushing through curbs on vaccine exports after its spat with AstraZeneca, the commission, out of sheer clumsiness, managed to reignite political tensions arising from the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
This was an incredible mistake and it happened only because the German president of the commission communicated exclusively with her German entourage. Had she kept the rest of the institution in the loop, the measure suspending a key part of the Northern Ireland protocol would never have seen the light of day.
But to speak of the EU’s “vaccine fiasco”, as some politicians and the media have, especially in Germany where there is political capital to be made from vaccine nationalism, is completely unjustified.
As Jacques Chirac, the former French president, used to say: only when the cattle fair is over can we count the cow dung.
In other words, we will see after the pandemic who came out best.
Jean Quatremer is Brussels correspondent of Libération and blogs at Coulisses de Bruxelles