Andrew Glencross (Aston University)
The rollout of a variety of effective vaccines against COVID-19 is an incredible scientific success story, but one that is currently overshadowed by an unseemly EU-UK spat over the distribution of this precious resource. In the prelude to the recent European Council summit, it emerged that the EU had exported 21 million vaccine doses to the UK with zero coming in the other direction. This very public dispute – played out noisily in newspapers and national capitals across Europe – on the surface suggests the post-Brexit relationship is ailing. However, there are many facets to this standoff, which is far more complex than the raw numbers imply.
For starters, the very possibility of restricting EU exports to the UK is a reflection of the structural change in relations wrought by Brexit. Export bans or restrictions on vaccines or ingredients between member states go directly against single market rules. Several countries, including the power duo of France and Germany, tried this approach with supplies of Personal Protective Equipment back in March 2020. Swift intervention by the Commission meant these unilateral measures were lifted within days. As a third country now, the UK does not benefit from such protections.
The changed legal nature of the new UK-EU relationship is of course not a reason for Brussels to adopt protectionist measures. The British press have sought to portray the debate over whether the UK has had unfair access to EU-made vaccines as an act of spite. This narrative is very much linked to the idea, promoted by the Conservative government in Westminster, that Brexit is what has allowed the UK to implement a hugely successful mass vaccination effort.
The reality is that the vaccine dispute is the offshoot of an intra-EU tussle rather than a fit of Brexit-induced jealousy. The EU exists to coordinate states to act in the interests of the whole club. That is why there is an independent architecture of enforcement overseen by the Commission and the Court of Justice. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccinations, the Commission sought to coordinate procurement and distribution – tasks it had never undertaken before.
With hindsight, as President Macron of France commented, the EU lacked ambition when it came to vaccine procurement. The Commission’s record in contracting compares poorly to the UK and the US. The best explanation for this problematic performance is the fact that the Commission represents the EU27 but without having the formal financial heft of a sovereign state. Unlike the US with its $18 billion operation Warp Speed, the Commission could not simply open the spending taps to back vaccine development and the associated supply chain. At a time when speed was of the essence, Brussels got sidetracked by worries about the cost and liabilities of vaccine procurement. That is why the Commission has proposed the creation of a new Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to act more swiftly in the future.
In the meantime, EU member states are also at daggers drawn over the distribution strategy for the vaccines procured by the Commission. The strategy is equitable in theory, with vaccines stocks distributed in relation to population size. The devil is invariably in the details because not all member states chose to take their full allocation, resulting in a murky “grey market” whereby foregone national allocations are redistributed to other countries. Given the confusion, it is not surprising that Germany is pushing Brussels to negotiate supplies of the Russian Sputnik vaccine, currently approved for use only in Hungary and Slovakia.
The combined effect of these procurement and distribution issues is that the debate over the EU’s COVID-19 response has become quite toxic. Such is the context for the Commission’s dalliance with protectionism as well as its singling out of AstraZeneca for failure to meet its contractual promises. This is a risky road to go down, as illustrated not just by the outraged reaction of the UK government but also the response developing countries who already feel they are bearing the brunt of vaccine nationalism.
Hence the EU is trapped in a strategic predicament. It has long championed free trade and global development, yet it also knows that its internal legitimacy derives from offering intra-European solidarity and practical solutions in crisis situations. COVID-19 is exacerbating the tension between the EU’s universalist message and its commitments to its own citizens. The European Council’s decision not to approve a vaccine export ban to the UK has calmed this tension for now. However, the underlying fault lines remain unchanged.
Andrew Glencross is Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Aston University; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; and an Associate Editor at ECPR Press. He has a PhD from the European University Institute and is the author of Why the UK Voted for Brexit: David Cameron’s Great Miscalculation (Palgrave 2016).