The European Commission is a law unto itself

For anyone who has followed the European Commission, and the way it works, for any length of time – the ongoing debacle over the delivery of vaccines in Europe should not come as a surprise. Yet again, it is a case of the European Commission failing to understand how to talk to business, while at the same time demonstrating how inflexible and rigid it is. It has also demonstrated a nastier side to the whole institution when it comes to accountability, and its ability to turn on those it wants to work with.

The Commission has once again has put politics before people when it comes to delivering the vaccines. In a bid to make up for lost confidence at the start of the crisis, and for the major delays in the delivery of the COVID Recovery Fund (still being negotiated), the Commission decided to try and prove its worth by taking control of the vaccine distribution.

Yet, from the beginning there have been problems. The EU was late in ordering the required doses, and when they did, they ordered too few. Further to that the decisions taken were political ones rather than rational or scientific ones.

The principal problem in all of this is that the European Commission has become used to swooping in at the last minute and saving the day. From the Brexit negotiations, to CETA, to the recent EU budget, the Commission has developed this mentality that if you wait until the last minute then you can reach a deal. While it views this is a good thing, the reality is that it is highly risky and incredibly dangerous.

The fact remains that when dealing with businesses during a crisis, there is no last minute. The best time to do a deal with the manufacturers is now. And the issue should not be about ordering too many, it should be with ordering too few. Of course, for the Commission this is not how they do deals. When it comes to the contracts signed for providing services – they like to take their time.

We already know that, according to Der Spiegel, in December 2020 the European Commission was offered an extra 500 million doses of the BioNTech (Pfizer) vaccine after being put under pressure by the French – who wanted to have approval for their own vaccines. Already this week that we have seen that one of the French vaccines has fallen at the first hurdle, leaving open the question of what will happen to the second one. 

All the while it begs the question as to why the European Commission did not pursue the agreement with BioNTech from the start, rather than waiting until January to do so. After all, there is no problem with having too many vaccines. Indeed, there was nothing noble about turning down an offer for extra vaccines that are being produced at cost – if anything it was an act of sheer stupidity.

Across the world, other countries are buying surpluses of the vaccines to ensure that all of their people can be guaranteed one. According to the academic journal ‘Nature’, by November 2020 Canada had already ordered 6 doses per person, the United Kingdom and Australia 5, and the United States had room for an average 7 doses per person. We all know that each person only needs two – but by hedging their bets across multiple vaccines they guaranteed that there would be enough for everyone.

This is how the United Kingdom and Israel both managed to get so far ahead in their vaccination programmes.

The other difference between these countries and the European Union’s approach is that of approvals and ordering. Once again, other nations put their orders in ahead of approval, hedging the market to ensure that if one vaccine failed, another would be able to be delivered on time. The surpluses that many of these countries have is a direct result of this strategy paying off, as thankfully almost all vaccines developed work against the virus.

The EU on the other hand has been bound by self-imposed red tape and regulation. The approvals process of the European Medical Agency has been a cause of major frustration for the leaders of national governments, who saw the Food and Drugs Administration in America and the UK Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approve much faster.

This frustration has also manifested itself in other more damaging ways than just going after the regulators – going after the countries and companies themselves. In December, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo criticised the UK for rolling out the vaccines earlier by trying to claim that the British people were being used as ‘guinea pigs’ – undermining public confidence in the vaccine not just in the UK but in Europe as well, giving fuel to the dangerous anti-vaxxer movement.

Equally, when the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt tried to claim that the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine was only 8 per cent, both AstraZeneca and the German Government had to intervene to point out this was untrue. Especially given that the response by AstraZeneca had shown that in clinical trials the vaccine had generated the correct antibodies in 100 per cent of patients over 65 – with the data having been published in the Lancet medical journal.

However, many could not help but think that this was a political attack rather than a scientific one – especially given the way in which the Commission had lashed out at the company earlier in the day. Especially when only days later the Commission then instructed a raid on the manufacturing plant just outside of Brussels, in an unprecedented assault on a private company. If a similar thing had happened in Poland or Hungary – the Commission would have come down on them like a ton of bricks, but because they did it themselves the entire episode will be downplayed.

Perhaps the worst thing in all of this is that when all of this is over, no one will be there to be held accountable. There is no system in the European Parliament that allows for the European Parliament to call up Commission staff in front of them and question their actions. There is no means of forcing the resignation of Commissioners for failing to act in a decisive and timely way. No impeachment hearing against the Commission President. There is no political party that can be voted out of office. The European Commission will not face any real scrutiny or consequences of their actions.

With the Conference on the Future of Europe coming up this year, perhaps it’s time to consider introducing those mechanisms needed to hold the Commission to account, and prevent another disaster in the future.

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