As EU fumbles vaccine drive, does union still mean strength?

As EU fumbles vaccine drive, does union still mean strength?

Why We Wrote This

Britain, no longer in the EU, has distributed COVID-19 vaccines more efficiently than its former partners. But when the EU rolls out its recovery plan, it hopes to show that pulling together has its benefits.

Kirsty O’Connor/PA/AP

Municipal staff in London speak to residents as they carry out mobile door-to-door virus testing to assess the prevalence of the South African COVID-19 variant. The UK government has been vaccinating its citizens much faster than European Union authorities.


February 10, 2021

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The European Union is struggling to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to even just its oldest and most vulnerable citizens, while Britain is surging ahead with a successful campaign that has its continental neighbors green with envy.

The United Kingdom government says this is an advertisement for Brexit, Britain’s departure from the EU that was finalized on the last day of 2020. Certainly it offers an example of how a single country can be nimbler than a large centralized bureaucracy.

But does it signal that assertive nationalism works better than international cooperation? In the longer term, Britain will have to deal with the economic downdraft from Brexit, which seems inevitable. And the EU will have a chance to redeem itself in the public eye when it begins to roll out a $900 billion pandemic recovery program.

How well it succeeds in showcasing the advantages of pulling together rather than going it alone will be of interest further afield too. Not least in the United States, where President Joe Biden has been busy talking up his support for international, not unilateral, action to solve the world’s problems.


Breaking up is hard to do.

Neil Sedaka’s 1962 lament has taken on new relevance for a pair of political divorcees – Britain and the 27-nation European Union. And their fraught separation has wider implications. Now that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has moved from rhetoric to reality, it is dramatizing a key political struggle in today’s world: between assertive nationalism and international alliances.

The immediate flashpoint has been the pandemic. A major vaccine manufacturer, the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, told the EU it would get millions fewer doses than expected this spring because of unexpected production bottlenecks. So late last month, the EU moved to limit deliveries to Britain from the European factories where many of the vaccines are made.

Brussels quickly rescinded that threat. But the row highlighted the starkly different paths that the EU and its recently departed partner have taken. Britain has approved, purchased, and begun distributing vaccines far more quickly and efficiently than the centralized EU.

That’s left advocates of a go-it-alone Britain feeling vindicated. It has also led to internal criticism of the EU authorities – one German weekly, Die Zeit, called the affair a perfect “advertisement for Brexit.”

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So does that mean the Brexit model works better? That the EU – with its pooled sovereignty and coordinated policy – is a relic of the now-tarnished idea of global connections and cooperation?

The jury is still out.

Major tests lie ahead for both sides, in their continuing response to the pandemic and the daunting task of post-pandemic recovery.

For Britain, one potential pitfall is the likely economic downdraft from Brexit.

More than half of British trade is with EU countries, and in the weeks since Brexit took effect in January, the new need to certify compliance with EU import regulations has led to complaints from companies of disruption, delays, and potentially prohibitive costs.

And an agreement on EU access for Britain’s services sector, the mainstay of its economy, has yet to be finalized.

Jon Super/AP

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to members of staff as he visits a COVID-19 vaccination center in the North of England.

Politically, the impact of all this has been overshadowed by the pandemic. And while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial COVID-19 response was criticized as uneven and often confused, he has been far more successful in securing and distributing vaccines.

But a test of the popular mood is approaching. Elections are due in May, for local governments in England and the devolved parliaments of Wales and Scotland, the other nations of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, polls suggest that displeasure over both the pandemic response and Brexit – which most Scottish voters opposed – could mean a resounding victory for the Scottish National Party.

If that happens, the SNP has vowed to push for a new referendum on independence, and seek separately to rejoin the EU.

Yet the EU faces complex challenges too.

Brexit is not a big economic concern, since its main cost will fall on Britain. But as the vaccine dispute highlighted, the EU faces pressure to answer Brexit’s political argument: that countries are better off running their own affairs than relying on the union’s unwieldy and sometimes unresponsive centralized decision-makers.

Ironically, the president of the EU’s executive branch made that point herself while defending her handling of the vaccine spat. “A [single] country can be a speedboat,” Ursula von der Leyen said. “The EU is more like a tanker.”

The tanker is listing.

Germany and France have been making the case that a shared European identity – and a distinct EU voice on the world stage – matter now more than ever. But some newer members have been charting a course at odds with the EU’s core ideals. Hungary and Poland have embraced “illiberal democracy,” reining in the media, curbing academic freedom, and limiting judicial independence.

The pandemic has also revealed wider tensions.

The EU’s initial response was anything but unified. Individual states scrambled last year to buy up needed protective equipment, every man for himself. The EU’s common, continent-wide vaccine strategy was meant to right that wrong. By bulk-purchasing vaccines, the EU wanted to avoid a situation in which wealthier countries bought up supplies while others waited.

But amid the slow roll-out, even Germany has made a separate arrangement with vaccine companies to supplement its EU allocation. Hungary has said it may start inoculating its population with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which hasn’t been approved by the EU’s regulatory authority.

The tanker is listing, but it can still right itself by demonstrating a capacity to deliver the everyday benefits to EU citizens that derive from strength in numbers.

A key test, and opportunity, will come in the shape of the $900 billion fund it has earmarked for post-pandemic recovery, especially for EU states that have been hardest hit economically.

And the degree to which the EU succeeds – how well its efforts make the case for pulling together rather than going it alone – will matter beyond Europe.

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Similar arguments are happening elsewhere. It was one defining difference between former U.S. President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, who has championed the importance of democracies working together.

He – unlike Mr. Trump – opposed Brexit. And now, he’ll no doubt be hoping the EU manages to weather its new challenges.

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Mark Sappenfield

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