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Last week’s ‘vaccine wars’ may be a foretaste of the future as well as an opportunity for European policymakers to have a discussion on what it might mean for the EU to be an autonomous geopolitical actor in a world that is becoming more competitive and complex. As it faces global power games, the EU has several levers of power that should be used in a coordinated and nuanced way to defend its interests and affirm its values internationally.
Vaccines. This is the issue that tops the agenda of any decision-maker in Europe and elsewhere these days.
The approval, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as the inoculation of large segments of the world population, has become the number one priority to exit the COVID-19 pandemic, which, apart from a catastrophic health crisis, has plunged the world into one of its most serious economic and social crises in decades.
It is against this backdrop that the European Commission clashed with AstraZeneca when the company announced that it could not meet the contracted deliveries of 80 million doses for the first quarter of 2021. The company first announced that it could only deliver 31 million jabs due to low yields in its production plants based in the EU. The Commission cried foul, published an (imperfectly) redacted contract, and tried to go on the offensive setting up a control mechanism to make the exports of COVID-19 vaccines from the EU “transparent”. Meanwhile, pressure from member states mounted. The squeezing seems to have worked, at least partially, as AstraZeneca announced that it would be able to add 9 million more doses up to 40 million – still 50 per cent short of what was expected.
The bitter public spat, and the attempts to address it in a swift way, led to a number of critical reactions: the UK and Ireland strongly condemned the fact that the Commission wanted to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol aiming to close a potential vaccine back door that could undermine the export controls, only to reverse it a few hours later; partners like Japan, Korea and Canada, potentially affected by the export control mechanism, expressed concern; and pundits and politicians alike criticised the EU for going down the path of ‘vaccine nationalism,’ something it had denounced in the past. This came on top of the more general condemnation on how the Commission had handled the joint vaccine procurement since the summer of 2020.
Lessons for the future
Putting aside the unprecedented nature of this crisis and political haste that led to unnecessary blunders and the haphazard way in which some policies were put in place, what lessons can be drawn from this incident? Can it teach us anything about the future of EU strategic autonomy and the role of the Commission as a geopolitical player? Three reflections:
First: Power asymmetry matters. The power balance between the EU and a pharmaceutical company is apparently skewed in favour of the latter. With a mission to procure vaccines and defend the interests of European citizens, under enormous time pressure, what other tools could the Commission have used to force AstraZeneca to comply? The courts? Pull out of the agreement? These are no viable options. Resorting to the export control tool was the most straightforward move, even if some argue that the results were meagre. It shows that the EU can speak the ‘language of power,’ something for which it is often criticised of not doing enough. In fact, several other countries have imposed export controls on medical supplies during the pandemic (including the UK, US and India). Clearly, for many Europeans, this instrument contrasts with the EU’s self-image of a benign multilateral actor, driven by values. But in an increasingly competitive world, it is very likely that the defence of interests may clash in the future with values the EU has held dear in the past. Europeans ought to get ready for this reality.
Another interesting development is the further consolidation of multinational corporations as powerful international actors. In The Economist’s “The World in 2021” Tom Standage rightly anticipated that companies would be further pushed into the frontline of current geopolitical games. Perhaps big pharma was not on his radar, but the consequences of last week’s vaccine wars, including the nonchalant remarks by AstraZeneca’s Global CEO, show that the corporate world is no longer fully immune from overt political disputes. This crisis shows that the time is ripe to launch a reflection on EU policies and instruments to deal with increasingly powerful global corporations – from pharma to tech.
Second: Vaccine nationalism is stupid. Hoarding vaccines or medical supplies to the detriment of others is contrary to the EU’s DNA and should be avoided at all costs. But as a global actor in a much more contested world, the EU should be able to use a mix of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to defend its interests and project its values like most big powers do. In foreign policy, all options should be on the table, even the calibrated threat of vaccine nationalism.
In parallel to the stick, the EU must pursue an effective policy of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ for the countries that cannot access them. As the new variants of the virus show, no one is safe until everyone is safe. The EU acquired more vaccines than it needs, and the excess should be shared with those most in need, in line with its values. The EU must keep its commitments to COVAX – the global collaboration for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines – but must also make sure that contracts and commitments made by pharmaceutical companies are upheld. The EU has several levers of power – from commercial and regulatory to economic and diplomatic – and should use them in a coordinated way.
Third: Together is better, even if slower. The criticism that single countries like Israel, the UK or the US have been able to move faster than the EU in securing vaccines and inoculating its populations may be factually correct, but what would have happened if richer EU member states had gone at it alone in the procurement of vaccines? For starters, it would have further undermined the cohesion of the Union at a crucial time, dented its international reputation, and made the process to approve the Recovery Fund and the MFF much more difficult. The integrity of the single market could also have been questioned if member states resorted to intra-EU export restrictions as they did at the start of the pandemic. As for asymmetries of power: if the result of the clash between the Commission and AstraZeneca is a vaccine shortfall of 40 million, imagine a single member state facing a behemoth industry that sells something essential for the life and wellbeing of its citizens – the chances of success would have been close to nil.
The hesitance of many Europeans regarding vaccination, coupled with legitimate questions about the efficacy and quality of some vaccines pushed the EU to be rightly cautious in the approval of vaccines. This more lengthy process builds trust and fends off potential accusations that the European Medicines Agency could be cutting corners to get the vaccines into the arms of Europeans faster.
Additionally, prioritising savings in vaccine procurement was a mistake and should be the EU’s last concern in this case. In the end, even the slightest delays cost lives and economic loss. If others are paying a higher price for the same product, it should not be surprising if a business follows the money. Irrespective of mishaps and the slower pace, joint procurement was still the right way. Now the EU needs to focus on supporting by every means possible the increase of vaccine production capacity to make sure that inoculations speed up in Europe and elsewhere.
What is next?
The trials and tribulations of the EU’s vaccine strategy may serve as an illustration of what it means to be an autonomous geopolitical actor that tries to keep internal cohesion and focus on crucial strategic objectives and, at the same time, defend its interests and values in the global order. Often, values and interests will coincide, but sometimes, one will prevail over the other. Instead of turning inwards, the EU should learn from this experience and see it as an opportunity to discuss what it means to be a geopolitical actor in the world that is emerging from the pandemic.