March 17, 2021

At the start of the month, things were starting to look up over on the Continent. The EU was rethinking its vaccine strategy — having seen the success of ours. In particular, it was realised (or so it seemed) that slagging off the AstraZeneca shot might not be a good way of persuading people to take it.

Furthermore, and following the acutely embarrassing Article 16 debacle, an effort was made to reclaim vaccine internationalism for the EU brand. The new line came from the President of the European Council, Charles Michel — whose sanctimonious missive on the matter is a masterpiece of Pecksniffery.

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Unfortunately, the EU good guy act didn’t last. Indeed, our neighbours appear to have lost their minds.

Kicking off the March madness was a vaccine export ban to Australia — a pointless and counter-productive move given that the EU could potentially benefit from vaccine imports.

Next, came a completely avoidable diplomatic row with the UK. Ironically, the cause of it was the Michel missive, which in seeking to emphasise the EU’s internationalism accused the British of banning vaccine exports. Except that no such ban exists. Eventually, the EU was forced to admit the truth. There was no apology.

Perhaps we should try to understand the EU’s prickliness. In a Covid-ridden world where vaccines have become an instrument of great power rivalry, the EU is trying to defend a high-minded principle — that of equal access between EU member nations. This is how Monsieur Michel put it in his blogpost: “The goal was to avoid competition and bidding between countries, and to allow all countries to obtain the doses at the same time. Otherwise, the larger or richer Member States would have been the first in the queue and best served…”

Admirable. Except that the joint procurement programme isn’t quite as egalitarian as its billing would suggest. Some countries — including Germany, of course — have exploited its loopholes to serve themselves. Other countries aren’t happy. Last week, the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, led five EU countries — Austria, Czechia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Latvia — in demanding an EU summit to address the unfairness:

“…the last few weeks have shown that deliveries are currently not being made according to population keys and that this is set to intensify in the coming months. This approach clearly contradicts the political goal of the European Union — the equal distribution of vaccine doses to all member states. If the distribution were to continue in this way, it would result in significant unequal treatment — which we must prevent.”

Kurz has been accused of seeking a distraction from his own government’s mediocre performance, but he makes a valid point. The EU’s vaccine procurement strategy prioritised fairness over timeliness, and has delivered neither.

Meanwhile, across Europe, governments are uniting in the face of an old enemy. Yes, the EU’s least favourite medicament is back on the blacklist: the AstraZeneca vaccine. This time the flimsy pretext is the report of blood clots in a small number of recently vaccinated individuals. Writing for UnHerd, Tom Chivers explains that it’s unreasonable to expect universal invulnerability to death and disease in a population of millions of older people. It’s also worth noting the assurances given by AstraZeneca itself, the UK government, the Scottish government, the World Health Organisation and indeed the European Medicines Agency.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped several EU governments (including the Germans, the French and Italians) from slapping a temporary ban on the Oxford AZ vaccine. For its part, the Irish government claims to be acting upon the “precautionary principle”. But there is nothing precautionary about snatching away a life-saving vaccine from vulnerable people in the middle of deadly pandemic — not without overwhelming proof of a countervailing danger, which they clearly don’t have.

There’s never a good time to commit an act of calamitous self-harm, but this latest insanity comes at an especially critical juncture. Not much more than a month ago, Covid cases in the EU were at roughly the same level as in the UK and the US. Now, they’re roughly twice the American level, and between three and four times the British level. That’s not just because cases are coming down in the UK and US, but also because they’re heading up in several European countries — and across the EU overall.

Furthermore, new variants of the virus such as those first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa are now established and spreading in EU countries — underlining the urgency of getting the population vaccinated. And yet instead of ramping up vaccination — as the British are doing this week from an already high base — European governments are choosing this moment to sabotage their own vaccine supply.

And let’s not forget where we are in the course of this pandemic — and what we’ve sacrificed to contain it. In the West, we’re now 12 months on from the first round of lockdowns. As the UK begins to unlock stage by stage, millions of Europeans face a second spring of confinement. Italy — the first European country to lockdown a year ago — is locking down again as cases surge.

Whatever the medical justifications, one has to ask if lockdown is politically, socially or economically sustainable. If Europe doesn’t achieve herd immunity levels of vaccination by the summer, the pressure to unlock regardless will be immense. It will be argued that if enough of the Continent’s elderly and vulnerable people have been jabbed then that will constitute ‘focused protection’ — thereby allowing the less vulnerable population to take their chances with the virus. Wouldn’t it be an irony if something akin to the strategy set out in the Great Barrington Declaration were to be implemented by the Continentals instead of les Anglos?

Of course, that would provide the new variants of the virus with a vast pool of hosts to splash around in freely. Through the use of mass testing and genomic sequencing, the authorities might be able to monitor and manage the spread and evolution of the variants — but this assumes that sufficient capacity to do so is in place. It isn’t. According to evidence given to the European Parliament by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control most European countries are not where they need to be in order to do the necessary tracking.

How do they get away with it? The EU’s politicians, I mean. Well, it helps that in Europe there’s always somebody else to blame. It might be another country, another institution or one of the EU’s five presidents. The choice is never ending. It also helps that, in times of crisis, people rally behind their governments. Not unreasonably, they put their trust in those politicians with the greatest experience of governing — a tendency that benefits establishment politicians over their populist rivals.

Nevertheless, there are signs that voters are beginning to lose their patience. In Germany, the ruling CDU — until recently surfing on a wave of support for Angela Merkel — crashed to defeat in regional elections. In France, polls continue to show a disturbingly tight second round run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. In Italy, populists account for three of the four main parties — and the non-populist fourth party (the centre-left, pro-European Democrats) are losing ground. In Spain, support for the hard Right Vox party continues to grow — even to the extent of overtaking what had been the main opposition party.

I’d like to think that this week’s renewed attack on AstraZeneca is evidence of a political panic. “Let’s blame somebody else before the voters blame us” would be a logical, if cynical, motivation. However, I fear that it’s not cynicism at work here, but a much more dangerous force: self-righteousness.

When you read the words of Charles Michel, a disturbing thought hits you: the people actually believe their own rhetoric. Consider this passage, in which Michel favourably compares the EU to Russia and China: “Europe will not use vaccines for propaganda purposes. We promote our values.”

I wonder, where were these “values” when they tried to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland? Or, now, as they cause millions of people to fear a life-saving vaccine?

But then, for the European Union, self-righteousness is not a character flaw, it’s a necessity. The EU is an enterprise — the “European project”, in fact. As such, it is unlike a real country. A nation, like a family, isn’t defined by what it does and still less what it thinks. It has no need to state its purpose or justify its existence.

The phrase, “my country, right or wrong” is widely regarded as the classic statement of jingoistic nationalism. But properly understood, what it means is that you can admit that your country is wrong, because that won’t change the fact of its existence — or of your belonging to it.

Not so with an enterprise. If it doesn’t work anymore, then it shouldn’t continue — because it is no more or less than it what it does. To fail a test as big as Covid — and in particular the vaccination effort — has existential implications for the European Union.

It is therefore not a question of the EU asking itself whether it’s got this one fundamentally wrong. By its own internal logic, it cannot be fundamentally wrong — certainly not on a matter as important as this one. Rather, the question is how it reconciles this basic assumption with reality.

I really hope the gap between the two narrows, because I fear the next set of answers.