PARIS — It should have been Europe’s finest hour. Battered by multiple waves of Covid-19, lockdowns and recession, the European Union had found a noble way to prove its raison d’être: by making the vaccine equally available to its 27 member states, rich or poor, small or powerful, through an unprecedented joint procurement initiative led by Brussels.
The vaccine would be doubly effective. It would protect the health of 450 million residents, allowing normal economic activity to resume, and it would strengthen the unity of the bloc. After the adoption of a common recovery plan last year, hailed as a remarkable success for European integration, what better way to demonstrate that we are stronger together than by ensuring vaccination for all?
If only. Instead the process has descended into chaos. Slow to secure contracts for vaccines, the bloc began its rollout notably later than Britain and the United States. Things got worse: One of the manufacturers, AstraZeneca, was unable to fulfill its orders, leading to an undersupply and an ugly spat with Britain. New vaccinations ground to a halt in several countries, including France, Spain and Portugal. Just 3 percent of the bloc’s population has received a jab.
What went wrong? Several factors seem obvious. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive body responsible for the vaccine program, is one. Her secretive management style has given way to tactical blunders. None were more glaring than her decision on Friday to control the export of vaccines manufactured in Europe, which would have effectively created a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — an outcome the European Union has spent the past three years trying to avoid.
In the freshly post-Brexit world, this was an incendiary move. After widespread criticism, and furious phone calls from the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, the decision was quickly reversed. A more collective approach might have spared Ms. von der Leyen the humiliation.
The bloc’s deliberative approach is another factor. Usually, member states are responsible for their own public health policies. But the pandemic unexpectedly put Brussels in the driver’s seat: The negotiation of contracts with the pharmaceutical industry, on a continentwide scale, is a new, complex experiment.
Last June the European Commission took over from an alliance of four countries — Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — that approached potential vaccine producers a month earlier with the aim of securing orders. While the British government could negotiate with companies by itself, the commission had to coordinate among all its member states. Clearly, that slowed things down.
But that alone does not explain the pace of the negotiations, which led to Brussels signing a contract with AstraZeneca two months later than Britain did. Some have blamed the delay on the bloc’s insistence on obtaining lower prices. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel contended that his strategy succeeded in part because he didn’t “quibble about the price of vaccines” — but he had to place orders for nine million people, not 450 million.
The real reason goes deeper. It lies in a risk-averse European culture marked, in several countries, by skepticism about vaccines. As a safeguard against public backlash, Europe’s leaders sought to secure as many guarantees as possible. Tellingly, one of the most difficult points in the negotiations with vaccine manufacturers was the degree of liability the bloc wanted them to accept if anything went wrong. A source close to President Emmanuel Macron of France told me the bloc had been concerned about combining speed with security guarantees — two imperatives that, unfortunately, seldom go well together.
You could make the case that to regain “the trust” of citizens, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said, it was necessary to act with circumspection. And the situation would certainly be much worse had each European country been left to fend for itself. But the political damage of this painful experience will prove costly.
For one, it might allow Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who’s eager to erase his own failures in handling the pandemic, to claim that great advantages come from being outside the bloc — an argument that nationalists throughout Europe would be eager to hear. And in a world where the vaccines have become a new measure of geopolitical power, no doubt President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China will smile at the sight of Europe’s difficulties.
Even worse was the impression last week that Europe was practicing vaccine nationalism, a depressing reversal of its commitment to openness. Wasn’t the vaccine supposed to be a global common good? Europe was one of the strongest promoters of the Covax initiative to procure vaccines for poor countries. But at this stage, it’s struggling to vaccinate its own residents.
This pandemic is the first global crisis since World War II in which American leadership has been absent. Europe, united and purposeful, could have filled the vacuum — but so far the opportunity has been badly missed. It must learn from the experience.
Sylvie Kauffmann (@SylvieKauffmann) is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde and a contributing opinion writer for The Times.
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