With the arrival of the first highly effective COVID-19 vaccines at the end of last year, it seemed to many that the end of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic was finally near. But now, almost three months later, many countries have found themselves embroiled in slow, disorganized vaccine rollouts and nowhere is such a statement truer than in the European Union.
The EU’s entire pandemic response—vaccine strategy included—has been organized around one principle: solidarity. After the brutal and fractured experiences of the bloc’s last few crises, European leaders had to show that the EU could actually yield benefits to its members in times of crisis. And so, solidarity became the EU’s guiding principle; the mutualization of pandemic debt became the central tenet of the bloc’s relief plan, meaning that the poorer and les financially stable countries of Europe’s South would be able to issue new debts at the same, low interest rates as Germany and France, and the EU Commission decided it would procure enough vaccines for the whole bloc and distribute them equitably so that the poorer countries of eastern and southern Europe, who likely would not be able to buy as many vaccine doses as quickly as the wealthy western European countries, would be able to vaccinate their populations in tandem with the rest of the bloc.
Despite the ambitions of the Commission’s vaccine strategy, the EU has found itself struggling to get shots into its citizens’ arms for three main reasons: issues of supply, issues of distribution, and issues of demand. The EU’s troubles began in earnest in January when AstraZeneca abruptly cut its delivery target to the EU by as much as sixty percent. This came on the heels of news that Pfizer and BioNTech were also experiencing a shortage in their vaccine supply. But, this only exacerbated a bigger problem for the EU: distributional disorganization. It is important to remember that, despite the EU Commission’s common vaccine strategy, member states can still approve of, buy, and distribute whatever vaccines they want. Furthermore, the EU Commission has distributed millions of vaccine doses to member countries that have gone unused. Supply, while an issue for the EU, is not the primary culprit of the bloc’s slow rollout.
The primary issue for the EU is disorganization within member countries. The EU comprises 27 states all with different healthcare schemes. In some states, public health is highly centralized with most decisions being made in the capital and handed down to localities. But other countries, like Italy, are much more localized with most decisions being made by local authorities. These differences meant that the EU could only ever be responsible for delivery shots to member states; putting them in people’s arms had to be done by states themselves and it seems that far too few had prepared the infrastructure to do so.
On top of that, vaccine scepticism has also been a problem of chief importance in Europe. Aside from the fact that Europe, and particularly France, is home to a fervent and longstanding anti-vaccination movement, messaging from top European leaders has not been great and has motivated many Europeans to avoid getting vaccinated. Soon after its approval, European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness in older individuals and many European states began to restrict its use in older age groups. This negative press has bolstered vaccine skeptics in Europe with one recent survey showing that as few as 40% of French people would accept a COVID-19 vaccine if offered one.
To plug some of the holes in Europe’s vaccine strategy, some European leaders have taken to talking up the vaccines and their safety and effectiveness. Others have explored buying the Russian and Chinese vaccines to offset their limited supply and a small market for selling and trading one’s vaccine allocation has quietly been established within the EU (which has been resoundingly denounced and discouraged by the Commission itself). For its part, the EU Commission attempted to institute export controls on vaccines made in the EU, forcing producers to deliver doses to Europeans rather than their other clients. This move was uniformly denounced by Europe’s allies in the U.S. and U.K. and even earned EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen a rare rebuke from her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, before being quickly reversed.
The EU’s slow rollout has opened the bloc up to much criticism, particularly from the U.K. whose vaccine strategy has been vastly more successful. But, the slow pace of European vaccination should not be blamed on the bloc but rather fall on the shoulders of the EU’s members. The EU is experiencing a problem well known to Americans, namely the limitations of central authority. The Commission, much like the federal government in the United States, is in many ways limited to just procuring vaccine doses; much of the heavy lifting has to be done by the states themselves. So, even in the U.S., which has also enjoyed an overall successful vaccine rollout, some states, like California, have performed vastly better than others, like New York. The major difference, though, is that the EU is not one country and every hiccup in the Commission’s vaccine regime encourages members to go it alone and secure doses on their own which, the Commission claims, undermines the bloc’s purchasing power and hinders its ability to deliver doses to member countries in a timely manner. It was this “vaccine nationalism” that truly caused the EU’s vaccine regime to unravel and turn what was supposed to be an exercise in solidarity into a free-for-all.