Europeans are circling the wagons around the beleaguered EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, amid the wreckage of her European “health union” and unilateral, short-lived suspension of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The desire for a pan-European approach to vaccine procurement and distribution was in essence right, say German and French leaders – Covid knows no borders and Europe must fight as a whole. Nor were the delivery failures of her making. On Northern Ireland, she could hardly have reversed her self-acknowledged bad decision more quickly. Rally to the EU president.
The defenders of her and the commission are wrong. Both the dilatory procurement and risk-averse delivery strategy were self-made disasters, originating in a centralised federal mindset that does not work. Europe can only emerge stronger, beating back mounting criticism across the continent over vaccine shortages, if it looks the failures in the eye and radically reorients itself.
At the same time, Boris Johnson’s government is winning plaudits. Under intense pressure, it rolled the dice, secured an exclusive vaccine contract with AstraZeneca by paying hundreds of millions upfront, before regulatory approval, to allow the building of UK vaccine production capacity. He has reaped the rewards. Similarly generous contracts were struck with other suppliers – the hope was that enough vaccine would work to justify the spending. So it proved. On top, a well-prepared NHS has rolled out the vaccinations with stunning efficiency. The “freedom” of Brexit is justified, chirrup delighted Brexiters.
Again wrong. Brexit remains a self-inflicted disaster growing worse by the day – witness the mounting chaos in our ports and the suffocation of exporters and the service sector alike through their exclusion from the single market and customs union. Exports to the EU down an extraordinary 68% in January. As for “freedom”, Britain always had the right to opt out of the EU’s regulatory directives. The NHS, with its foundational socialist commitment to equal health for all, would have worked well in any circumstances.
But the Tories are the English nationalist party – they can be no other. Johnson and Rishi Sunak may say they want the alchemy of a proactive, agile government working hand in hand with innovative companies – a classic European social market approach – across the board. But in reality they blunder on with reheated Thatcherism as their core reflex policy (only last week bids for 10 new free ports in England closed) and insist that the escalating Brexit-induced crises in business and the City are “teething problems”. Nationalist hyper-Thatcherites are never going to implement the aggressive social market capitalist policies needed to “build back better”, or strike the deals, involving compromises over “sovereignty”, vital for future prosperity.
Mainland Europeans should also heed the lessons. AstraZeneca, as part of its deal with Oxford University, aims to produce 2 billion doses of its vaccine for Europe, the US and the world at $3 a jab – less than a cup of coffee – and far cheaper than its more venal rivals. It is a social market, stakeholder-capitalism success story, as has been the UK government’s public-private vaccination policy. However, vaccines are not produced like widgets and yields can disappoint – the reason for being unable to supply the EU with 100 million jabs by the end of March. But soon US regulators will give it the green light too.
AstraZeneca did not deserve President Macron giving succour to the army of anti-vaxxers, particularly in France, by falsely saying the vaccine did not work for the over-65s – even as he colluded with Von der Leyen in trying to bully the British into surrendering their contracted supplies to the EU. Nor should Angela Merkel tamely rally behind her ex-colleague Von der Leyen; her finance minister, Olaf Scholz, was more on the money when he said that neither Germany nor Europe could afford “to let this shit repeat itself”. Amen to that.
The commission should never have arrogated vaccine procurement and distribution to itself as if it were a Soviet planner. It had neither the expertise nor experience. It should have stuck firmly to a tried and tested social market approach, delegating the response to member states while ensuring there was no bidding war, along with a robust system for intra-EU vaccine sharing. It should have been devising an EU-wide approach to contest the anti-vaxxers and have abjured vaccine nationalism to the last, never blockading Northern Ireland. Nonetheless its proposition – that no European is safe until every European is safe – is right. It must stand by it.
However, instead of luxuriating in a “freedom” that, when it works, is thoroughly European, Britain should be thinking of how to find its way back to the European mainstream and make those values live in Europe as much as Britain. Future economic and business success does not lie in joining the trans-Pacific partnership, which accounts for some 8% of our trade, or in free ports, havens for business malpractice and “deregulation”.
They are no compensation for what we are losing as European supply chains collapse along with open access to European markets, hitting industries as varied as music and fishing. The City of London, tax cow for the nation, desperately needs a deep and binding financial services EU treaty if it is to prosper, not the minimalism of a scant and rickety temporary deal, which anyway the government seems reluctant to negotiate.
If only Von der Leyen had trusted Europe to be its social market self, with a proper balance between speed and equity and with the commission as steward and referee, the EU would now be awash with vaccines. Equally, whatever success Britain has in future will be because it, too, is finding its way to be “European”.
Brexit’s destiny is to be the trigger for that realisation in both Britain and the continent. A first step for Britain will be a return to the single market and customs union, and, because it cannot be a rule taker, it must and will eventually rejoin the EU, an EU that has also learned some lessons. It may take a decade, but it will happen, because it must. Warts and all, we stand together as Europeans.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist