How the EU’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout became an ‘advert for Brexit’

As EU countries suffer the consequences of a lethargic Covid-19 jab rollout, analysts decry a Brussels procurement process that lacked both urgency and expertise while vaccinations sprint forward in the bloc’s former member Britain.

Thanks to a troubled procurement programme, the EU’s vaccination rate is around a fifth of Britain’s. The UK has vaccinated more than 10 million people – the third-highest rate behind Israel and the UAE – after assembling the biggest vaccine stockpile per capita last year.

Vaccines are most urgently needed in Portugal – currently the world’s worst Covid-19 hotspot – but the country’s vaccine chief warned on Wednesday that the country “can’t do much more” because the EU has not procured enough jabs.

Spanish authorities stopped all vaccinations in the Madrid region for ten days starting on January 27 because of a lack of jabs. The following day, three French regions including the Paris area faced such a shortfall that they had to suspend injections of first doses to guarantee those already vaccinated their second doses.

‘No urgency’

This came amid the EU Commission’s imbroglio with AstraZeneca, which developed its jab with Oxford University. The EU envisaged some 80 million doses arriving by March. But the Anglo-Swedish firm informed the EU on January 22 that, due to problems at a factory in Belgium, it could only deliver 31 million doses in that timeframe.

The UK signed its deal three months earlier than the EU, giving AstraZeneca time to iron out logistical issues, the company said. Brussels asked the Anglo-Swedish firm to divert supplies from the UK, but the firm said its contract with Britain prevented this.

Britain negotiated a “much tighter contract”, said Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist and co-author of 'The Wake-Up Call', a book on the Covid-19 pandemic.

AstraZeneca agreed on February 1 to supply a further 9 million doses to the EU, meaning a total of 40 million doses by the end of March – half of what the EU initially expected.

The EU has also had procurement problems with the Moderna jab. The US biotech firm told the Italian government on January 29 it would supply 20 percent fewer vaccines than planned from early February. Meanwhile the French government announced it would receive 25 percent fewer Moderna jabs than expected in February.

Likewise with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. After Brussels placed its first order in November, the US pharmaceutical giant announced on January 15 major delays in the distribution of jabs to the EU – prompting six countries to write to the commission, complaining of an “unacceptable” situation.

Again, Britain acted more quickly, buying its Pfizer-BioNTech doses in July. Pfizer offered the EU 500 million doses the same month – but Brussels turned the proposal down, deeming it too expensive, according to an internal EU document seen by Reuters.

“The orders came late and were focused on price; it seems like the EU thought vaccines weren’t a priority,” said Nicolas Bouzou, head of Paris-based advisory firm Asterès.

Last summer there was “no urgency” from the EU because “the contrast with the health calamity in the United States made European officials forget that the pandemic was in fact a state of emergency requiring a decisive approach to vaccination”, Bruno Macaes, a political scientist at Washington DC’s Hudson Institute and former Portuguese Europe minister, wrote in British news magazine UnHerd.

Before Covid-19, the EU left health policy to national governments. However, Brussels took charge of vaccine procurement in the summer of 2020, as part of what Von der Leyen called a “European Health Union” in her September “State of the Union” address.

Member states were free to opt out of this supranational scheme, but none did so. Brexit made it “easy” for the UK to go its own way on vaccines, Bouzou observed.

“The EU Commission is very good at negotiating things like trade deals, but traditionally it hasn’t had competence in such matters as vaccines and contract negotiations, which were left to member states,” Wooldridge pointed out.

“The commission decided to aggrandise its competence and it wasn’t up to the job – it didn’t have the right people or the right skills,” he continued.

By contrast, Britain put a successful venture capitalist specialising in biosciences, Kate Bingham, in charge of its vaccine procurement programme.

“Her competence is in buying vaccines and drawing up contracts, and that’s not the competence of Ursula Von der Leyen or anyone within her employ,” Wooldridge said.

Hard border near miss

The EU was hailed as exemplifying such competence in protecting its member states’ interests during Britain’s convulsive divorce from the bloc. But on January 29, the vaccine fiasco threatened to undermine that. In what many regarded as a sign of desperation, Brussels triggered an emergency provision in the Brexit deal to impose export controls on vaccines sent to Northern Ireland.

This would have necessitated a hard border between the British province and the Irish Republic – after it took years of Brexit wrangling to keep the frontier open through a solution London, Dublin and Brussels could all agree on. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – which ended the Troubles – obligates both the UK and the Republic of Ireland to ensure an open border.

The EU Commission U-turned a few hours after its announcement, bowing to outrage from Belfast, London and Dublin.

Despite backtracking on Northern Ireland, the EU Commission imposed the same day a regulation blocking vaccine exports to some 100 countries, unless exporters receive a waiver from their national government. This prompted a rebuke from WHO Assistant Director-General Mariangela Simao, who told journalists the export ban constitutes a “worrying trend”.

‘The best advertisement for Brexit’

The EU’s vaccine blunders even provoked fierce criticism in Germany, the continent’s most pro-European country. The commission’s handling of vaccine procurement has been “shit”, German Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the rest of the cabinet on Thursday.

It is “the best advertisement for Brexit", Die Zeit, a pillar of German Europhilia, wrote in an editorial last weekend.

“Hardliners in the UK will not forget Von der Leyen’s Brexit own-goal” in almost imposing a hard border on Northern Ireland, the German newspaper continued, while British Europhiles “will increasingly be wondering whether the departure from Brussels was such a bad thing after all”.

As experts foresaw, Brexit has imposed costly friction on trade – while Boris Johnson’s deal replaced the risk of a problematic border between the UK and the Irish Republic with the reality of problematic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, sparking concern and anger amongst many unionists in the province. “The details of Brexit have not worked out well,” Wooldridge said.

However, the EU’s vaccine fiasco “couldn’t have been better designed for Brexiteers, demonstrating their idea that leaving EU meant leaving a sclerotic institution”, he continued.

“It has a geopolitical effect,” Bouzou added. “The EU looks like a loser while the UK, US, Israel and even Russia look like leaders.”