The way that the EU handled the procurement of vaccine has exposed the Union’s governance’s fragility. European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen wanted to achieve two political objectives when she defined and managed the process that the EU would follow to procure the optimum amount of vaccines in the context of scarce supplies.
The first objective was to show how the EU could promote a deepening of solidarity between member states in a time of crisis. Although health matters are typically left to individual member states to manage, Von der Leyen saw the pandemic as a golden opportunity to “build a European Health Union”.
Late last year, the Commission’s public relations machine went into overdrive organising photo opportunities showing elderly persons getting their vaccine in the different member states on the same day. As usual, EU leaders did not miss their chance to be seen on TV taking their jabs to set an example to ordinary people to do the same.
The second reason why the Commission decided to procure the vaccine by negotiating on behalf of the 27 member states was the fear that individual EU countries would engage in a free-for-all competition to procure the scarce vaccines if collective negotiations were ruled out. This ad hoc procurement arrangement produced the results that it was meant to avoid.
European citizens are now asking why UK citizens are being protected by their government more effectively even though the EU has better negotiating clout because of its size.
The EU governance failures in the procurement of the vaccines are glaring. Introducing a new and radical procurement process in the middle of a pandemic is not the best tactic to achieve success.
The way the negotiations with pharmaceutical producers were handled exposed the negotiating team’s lack of experience and incompetence
The Health Commissioner in the EU is not a high-profile post in the Commission hierarchy. The way the negotiations with pharmaceutical producers were handled exposed the negotiating team’s lack of experience and incompetence.
The UK adopted very different but more effective strategies. British negotiators dismantled bureaucracy layers in the public procurement process. They understood the risks of delay when faced with a global health crisis. They opened wide their wallets to conclude supply contracts in a market where it was always evident that demand would by far outstrip supply in the short term.
The Commission’s reaction, when faced with this failed procurement process, was at best pathetic. Rather than admit to their mistake, they engaged in a blame game accusing AstraZeneca of a gross breach of contract. The EU’s legal advisers are undoubtedly experienced in interpreting European law. They are less so in giving the Commission practical advice on the negotiation of massive public-sector procurement projects.
Von der Leyen’s threat to use a clause in the Brexit treaty to establish a hard border in Ireland to control the export of the vaccine from the EU to Britain was the worst political decision taken by the Commission president in the few months she has been in office. Her claim that COVID would demonstrate the virtues of European solidarity has been deflated by the vaccine fiasco.
The underlying political currents that affected the way the vaccine project was mismanaged are now quite clear. What is not so clear is how this governance debacle will evolve.
In the short term, UK pro-Brexit politicians will use the vaccine failure to prove how right they were to leave the EU that, in their opinion, is led by incompetent bureaucrats and pompous politicians.
The European Parliament and the EU ombudsman are launching inquiries to get to the root of this debacle. Von der Leyen will come under increasing scrutiny for her perceived mismanagement of the vaccine crisis. Her reputation has undoubtedly been tarnished. A medical doctor and mother of seven, she managed to project an image of efficiency and calmness that many people consider essential in their leaders. She may manage to hold on to her post after this political storm calms down but she risks becoming a less inspirational leader at a time when the EU needs strong leadership to address the Union’s structural weaknesses.
Perhaps, even more worrying, the vaccines debacle will inject new life in Eurosceptic political parties. French President Macron will be facing elections next year. The chances of him being ousted by Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen are not insignificant.
When the US seems to have found new and effective political leadership, the EU appears to be as far away from this objective as it has been in the last decade.
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