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Why the European Commission failed the vaccine challenge

The EU’s failure to deliver Covid-19 vaccines at pace is a major political scandal. For some leading politicians, it is a potentially career-ending fiasco. Those in the line of fire include Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission; Emmanuel Macron, president of France and Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister and a potential future chancellor.

How did it come to this? Much of the blame lies with the European Commission — which, over the summer, persuaded the EU’s 27 member states to co-ordinate their vaccine drives and to put the commission itself in charge.

There were good and bad reasons for this. The good reason was that EU officials could see the threat of dangerous divisions emerging between EU nations as they competed for scarce supplies.

The bad reason is the commission and Ms von der Leyen, saw the pandemic as a great opportunity to expand EU powers. Following the well-worn Brussels dictum that the EU always progresses at times of crisis, they pushed to take control.

Health policy has traditionally been largely reserved for individual nations. But Ms Von der Leyen announced that the EU is now “building a European Health Union”. The commission president liked the idea that Covid-19 would demonstrate the virtues of European solidarity. Photo opportunities were planned, showing Europeans getting their jabs all over the continent on the same day. But instead of these positive images, the EU is having to explain away photos of empty vaccination centres, stilled by a lack of supply.

In retrospect, the middle of a pandemic was probably not the ideal time to launch a radical experiment in health policymaking. The European Commission does have a health directorate. But it has traditionally been a backwater, run by a low-profile commissioner, currently Cyprus’s Stella Kyriakides.

Faced with a massive health emergency, the commission lacked the in-house expertise to meet the challenge of vaccine procurement. Officials in Brussels moved with excessive caution, haggling over prices and contracts, while the US, Israel and the UK raced ahead.

The commission is now blaming AstraZeneca for failing to deliver all the jabs it had promised. But the company points out that Britain signed a deal three months before the EU, making it easier to ensure that production chains were in place and operating smoothly. The EU’s efforts on a big advance-purchase order were partly stymied by suspicions among poorer countries that Germany and France wanted to direct money towards their own companies.

Other parts of the EU system were also not fit for purpose. The commission’s legal service is highly regarded, but its expertise is the interpretation of European law. It had no real experience in negotiating massive public-sector procurement projects. The result has been an unseemly row with AstraZeneca over a contract that the commission insists is watertight, but that many lawyers regard as full of holes.

If and when the European parliament and the EU ombudsman launch inquiries into the debacle, Ms Von der Leyen may find herself under threat. One senior Brussels figure says: “If the conclusion is that the commission has been incompetent, on a matter of life and death, that’s a resignation issue.” The impression that the commission is flailing around is strengthened by its hurriedly announced and rapidly reworked ban on the export of vaccines, which has sparked an international backlash.

Criticism of the commission is also growing inside the EU. There have been damning verdicts on Ms Von der Leyen’s stewardship in the German press. Markus Söder, chief minister of Bavaria, has accused the commission of lacking the necessary sense of urgency and following “typical, normal, bureaucratic EU procedure”.

Mr Söder is widely regarded as a strong candidate to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor, when she steps down in September. The favourite is Armin Laschet, who has just been appointed as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union party. But Mr Laschet is closely allied to Mr Spahn, who is linked to the ill-fated decision to hand vaccine procurement to the EU.

The vaccines mess is also bad news for Mr Macron, who favoured an EU-wide vaccines policy. The French leader faces a presidential election next year. An opinion poll last week showed Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, only narrowly behind him, by a margin of 52-48. French researchers’ failure to produce a vaccine is also being treated as a national embarrassment. Mr Macron’s criticism of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, shortly before it was approved for use across the EU, looked peculiar.

One leader who is clearly gaining politically from the current row is Boris Johnson. The British prime minister was in trouble over both Brexit and the pandemic. The UK has the highest per-capita death rate for Covid-19 of any large country in Europe. A backlash against the flaws in Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal is growing as exporters all over the country get tangled up in red tape.

But the European Commission’s incompetence has, perhaps temporarily, reshaped the Brexit debate in Britain — making Mr Johnson’s arguments that the UK is better off outside the EU look more credible. Covid-19 almost killed Mr Johnson. But it has now handed him a political lifeline.

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