It was the Christmas miracle Europe had been waiting for; “a touching moment of unity,” as Ursula Von der Leyen put it, “and a European success story”. Only six months before, the President of the European Commission had proposed she negotiate vaccine deals on behalf of all 27 member countries. Finally, come Boxing Day, she was able to announce that the bloc’s vaccine programme was finally underway. Europe was saved.
As the leaders of the EU’s member states prepare to meet tomorrow for a European Council meeting, I suspect few believe it will be another “touching moment of unity”. For the truth is that the “European success story” has been anything but.
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Even at the last meeting of the European Council, roughly a fortnight before Von der Leyen’s victory lap, the mood was hardly buoyant. During the all-night session, the representatives of the member countries failed to agree on everything except for the fact that a no-deal scenario was the most likely outcome of the Brexit process — another EU prophecy that has since unravelled.
Yet there remains a sense of solemnity to these European Council meetings. They are, after all, often convened in times of crisis. And whether it’s the collapse of the Eurozone, the sudden wave of migrants or the emergence of a new deadly coronavirus, if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that the EU has never been short on crises.
Of course, not all of these disasters are of the EU’s own making — though some certainly have been. But throughout each of them, a remarkable trend has emerged: that no matter how bad the situation is, the EU always finds a way to make it worse.
When, for example, the Eurozone crisis hit in 2010, the federalists were intent on showing that only the EU could save the Mediterranean countries from economic collapse. Far less important for Brussels was the fact that Greece, in particular, would not have been in this mess if it had not been accepted into the Eurozone in the first place. Similarly, when the immigration crisis peaked five years later, Brussels insisted that only a unified block could respond to such a challenge. Predictably, it failed to take into account that it was failures at an EU level — in particular its unilateral approach to migration policies — that had exacerbated the problem in the first place.
And now we are seeing the results of the EU’s botched handling of the Corona crisis. Despite Von der Leyen’s promise of vaccine success, Paris has just gone into another lockdown and Germany is set to implement nationwide restrictions over Easter. Meanwhile, the vaccine roll-out across the majority of the bloc remains calamitously slow.
Yet while it’s easy to criticise individual governments and leaders for mistakes in their countries, we must not lose sight of how the EU’s decision-making has often amounted to nothing more than a catalogue of errors.
First there was the whole issue of vaccine development, with French and German companies both being protected by their respective governments even as they preached a message of unity. Then there came the procurement disaster, in which Franco-German protectionism once again delayed production. Then there was the disaster of the roll-out, where the bloc’s efforts to ensure that nobody raced ahead meant that every country advanced at the slowest rate possible. In the meantime, the Commission still found the time to order raids on laboratories and threaten to seize AstraZeneca manufacturing plants.
The Commission has, of course, apologised after every misfire. But on no occasion has it looked as though it has learned its lesson. At present, the EU seems more focused on the bloc’s “bad boys”, notably Hungary, for going their own way and acquiring massive quantities of the Russian and Chinese vaccines. Yet in Hungary, the country’s vaccination rate has raced ahead with around 16% of its population having received at least one jab, as opposed to a mere 9% average in the bloc as a whole.
In the face of these facts, one would expect tomorrow’s Council meeting to be a sombre if not sobering affair. But as those who have attended previous Council meetings can attest, they rarely are any such thing — for the simple reason that the Council is incapable of absorbing criticisms which cast any negative light on its own direction of travel.
Evidence from around the world suggests that countries which are limber and independent — such as Israel, Singapore and Britain — have been able to act swiftly during the pandemic, particularly with regard to vaccinations. Indeed, there is no logical reason why EU countries could not have been allowed to pursue independent vaccine development, procurement and roll-out. Except for the fact that any such conclusion runs counter to the heart of the EU’s fundamental principle: that its members must act in concert.
In Brussels, it has already been decided that an EU-wide approach is always the only approach. And as we are seeing, it will doggedly remain committed to the wrong answer even when that answer has been proved wrong. There are, of course, issues on which a multilateral approach are needed, as there are issues on which unilateral policies are required. But once you have decided that there is never — and never will be — an alternative, you are bound to encounter problems which you cannot solve.
In recent years, critics of the EU have repeatedly noted that while there was much criticism in Brussels of the UK for leaving the bloc, there was no self-reflection over why we might have chosen that decision. There were none of the procedures in place that would normally allow a political entity to consider criticisms and adapt accordingly. Why is this? Because if you believe that the answer to everything is an “ever-closer union”, then contemplating the benefits of a more relaxed arrangement is an impossible task.
All of which grates somewhat, given how the EU repeatedly asserted that it was Brexiteers who were the immovable ideologues; when, as Brussels’s recent behaviour has shown, in reality it is the EU that is riddled with blind obstinance. So when the European Council meets tomorrow, expect it to blame everyone but itself. And as a result, when the next crisis comes around, expect it to fail yet again.