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AstraZeneca dispute comes at a difficult moment for the European Union

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
European Conmmission president Ursula von der Leyen is hitting out at AstraZeneca. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Just as the European Union’s popularity looked to be on the up after the trauma of Brexit, an unusually public row has erupted over the supplies – or lack thereof – of COVID-19 vaccines across the bloc.

AstraZeneca has reduced its projected vaccine rollout to the EU, despite signing a contract to supply millions of doses, citing an issue with a plant in Belgium. It did not, however, cut its supplies to the UK.

The European Commission has protested vigorously and has threatened legal action against AstraZeneca to force it to fulfil an agreed order for tens of millions of doses.

The German government, meanwhile, has been calling for companies to have to apply for licences to export vaccines out of the EU. German health minister Jens Spahn has demanded transparency over the export of EU-produced vaccines, apparently threatening retaliatory action to secure more supplies for the EU.

The conflict shows just how high the political stakes are on all sides.

Awkward timing

The European Commission fears that failure to coordinate the vaccination effort effectively could once more erode popular support for the European Union. The years of wrangling over Brexit have served as a deterrent for potential leavers elsewhere in the EU, but EU institutions are now taking the blame for a potential shortage in supply. A political and legal crisis could now be added to the health crisis.

There is a reason for the especially vocal criticism of AstraZeneca’s behaviour from Germany. Spahn’s Christian Democratic Union is under pressure for the slowness of the domestic vaccination rollout and crunch elections loom in September.

And in fact, it is unusual for the European Commission to play such a central role in a health project. Health policy is a primary national competence, and the EU only has subsidiary powers compared to member states. You wouldn’t normally expect to see a project of this kind being run by the European Commission as the EU’s executive arm.

The European Commission only decided to take the reins when, at the start of the crisis in March 2020, member state governments initially ignored Brussels and their legal obligations to the union. They shut down borders within the Schengen Area, to avoid the spread of the disease, splitting up families and preventing commuters from getting to work. They also looked to develop national vaccination strategies.

Under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen, its president since 2019, the European Commission stepped in to end the chaos and maintain the internal market and free movement – at least in principle. It also drew up a strategy for the joint procurement of vaccines. Although contractual conditions are confidential, it is likely that the EU is paying less for vaccines than the UK. It is certain in any case that member states are paying less collectively than they would have done individually.

German health minister Jens Spahn, wearing a COVID mask.
Spahn wants action. EPA

The EU has also managed to get richer member states to agree a fair distribution of the available vaccines across the EU to strengthen the notion of mutual solidarity.

Seen in this light, the EU has reacted surprisingly swiftly to a policy challenge for which it had limited competence. The political friction results from the strong functional need to cooperate closely in the pandemic, and the continued reluctance at member-state level to cede more powers to Brussels.

If the vaccination effort continues to lag behind in the EU, the European Commission may be blamed for it, at least by the eurosceptic right and left. However, the COVID-19 crisis ultimately serves to show that more cooperation is needed across borders, not less, to tackle a transnational policy challenge like a pandemic.

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