The Mess That Is The European Vaccine Rollout
As the EU scrambles to rectify its ever worsening response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine rollout threatens to tarnish the EU’s reputation not only amongst the bloc, but in broader foreign relations. The EU claims it is “catching up” to the UK’s successful COVID-19 vaccination program. In reality, a third wave looms in the richest bloc of nations on the globe even as its countries "pick up speed". Germany, Belgium, and France have reintroduced tough restrictions as the British variant of the disease accounts for a rising proportion of cases. Italy has surpassed more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths and has begun blocking shipments of vaccines out of the country. More than a dozen countries have paused, and then resumed, the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and German health authorities have said they do not have enough doses to stop a third wave.
The EU is clearly panicking, which has intensified vaccine nationalism across the continent. This nationalism, combined with the lagging rollout, erodes the EU's relations with its neighbours, close allies and member states. Further, it has left some neighbouring countries – particularly to the East – and even some EU countries searching for vaccines outside the formal EU rollout. Vaccine nationalism has seen member states block the export of vaccines outside the bloc. Australia and the UK have so far been directly affected. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi questioned Australia’s need for the vaccine as a “non-vulnerable” country, and proceeded to prevent a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine leaving Italy. Naturally, this came with the caveat that “it [was] not a hostile act” against Australia.
While Italy’s act was independent from the bloc and received due criticism, rumours are swirling that France and Germany are in favour of activating Article 122 of the EU’s treaty. This would allow for emergency measures to control the distribution of essential goods, in this case vaccines. The activation of Article 122 would cause significant disruptions to other nation’s vaccine rollouts. For example, the EU's export ban could delay British administration of the vaccine by as much as two months, adding pressure to an already frosty relationship. Many have voiced their strong opposition to acts of aggressive vaccine nationalism, and the WHO has called for vaccine equity. However, it is being increasingly shown that polities such as the EU will place their own citizens' health as top priority, even if it threatens relations with like-minded countries.
The scramble to secure vaccines and keep them on the continent is a result of public demand, frustration, and delays in production and subsequent cuts from AstraZeneca. However, in a strange juxtaposition, while the EU holds tightly to its supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, at one point, four in five AstraZeneca doses had not been administered within the EU. The lack-lustre uptake of the AstraZeneca vaccine has resulted in cases rising across the continent and, with confirmation of rare blood clotting linked to the vaccine shaking trust even further, this is likely to continue.
Slow vaccine administration across the bloc has led to increased frustration, and has seen both Europe’s periphery countries, and even some within the EU itself, turn to other sources for their vaccine supply. In many instances it has been the EU’s adversaries, China and Russia, stepping in.
Hungary, a well-known rebeller against EU lines, has approved both the Russian and Chinese vaccines, with rumours suggesting Croatia and the Czech Republic are thinking of following suit. Hungary has one of the largest vaccine programs on the continent, is one of the only European countries to sign a vaccine deal with China, and was the first EU country to issue the Sputnik V vaccine. This makes it the first country to deviate from the bloc’s collective strategy, and has since continued to sign deals with other companies outside the bloc’s approval system. Since the early deviations in the East, Austria and Denmark have also pivoted and are now working with Israel. The countries commented that the EU is “too slow” and have said they will work with Israel into the future on second generation vaccines. Furthermore, EU nations such as Austria and Denmark rejecting EU negotiated vaccines threatens to damage the purchasing power and contracts of the whole bloc, causing further headaches for the EU.
The EU’s inability to take control of its own vaccination program and its failure to assist countries in its periphery has left it open to a raft of problems, and left spheres of influence open for the taking. For example, Serbia has been inoculating at an incredible rate with the inclusion of Russian and Chinese vaccines in its rollout. In fact, it is the best vaccinator in Europe after Great Britain. When they were not receiving any assistance from the EU, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic appealed directly to Chinese Leader Xi Jinping for assistance. Now, with five vaccines available for use, Serbia is racing ahead of its central and western European counterparts. Despite a bid to join that began a decade ago, Serbia’s exclusion from the EU is a benefit they say has allowed for “flexibility” from the EUs strict regulations. Serbia has attributed its success to treating the pandemic “as a health issue, not a political issue,” accepting vaccines from all suppliers rather than catering to political or foreign policy motivations.
The true fallout of the EU's vaccine failures, both in terms of health and diplomatic ramifications, is yet to be realised. It is interesting to see many former Soviet countries receiving assistance from Russia and China, considering their shared political histories and the distance many have tried to put between them and their communist past. It is unclear what problems this may cause in the future, as vaccine diplomacy may win favours among these nations. The EU’s failure to spread Western influence and support into its Eastern periphery at such a vital moment may have significantly damaged these still fledgling relationships. This failure to assert themselves as a global leader comes at a pivotal moment in shifting global dynamics and may very well come back to bite them.
Eliza Archer graduated from a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne, majoring in Politics and History, and completed a Double Masters in European Governance at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) and Utrecht University (Netherlands) in 2019. During this time, Eliza interned at NewsMavens, a pan-European news organisation that aimed to combat misinformation and sexist content in the European media. Upon graduation, Eliza pursued a traineeship at the Delegation of the European Union in New Zealand.