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Editorial

The EU Must be Held Accountable for COVID Failures

2021 is only a few days old, and yet is already proving to be a challenging year for many. With the sharp rise in the in the number of Covid-19 cases across Europe, and the prospect of economic uncertainty with further national lockdowns – the start of this year is becoming just as difficult as 2020. This year is already shaping up to be different than previous, with many people seeing in the new year alone or away from their families, whilst others remain unclear if they’re able to send their children back to school or even return to their own jobs.

What people are looking for now, more than ever is a sign of hope. And whilst the rolling out of the various vaccines that have been developed offered a glimmer of that at the end of last year, it seems that things have stalled in Europe. But why?

Whilst Israel is expected to vaccinate its entire population by April, and other countries such as the UK have made great progress in vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people already over the last month and half, European countries have been slower. The problem lies not with the national governments themselves, but rather with the fact that they have very little to with the process at all.

An overambitious and overzealous European Commission insisted that Member States should not be allowed to procure the vaccine on their own, but rather that they should pool their resources and buy it together. This policy has been an unmitigated disaster.

To begin with the European Medical Agency, whose head publicly quit at the beginning of the pandemic in April criticising the EU response, has been slow to approve the Pfizer vaccine.  Approval for use didn’t come until weeks after the UK, USA and Israel had already begun the process of vaccinating the people.

When approval did finally come, the European Commission made a commitment to order 200 million doses, with an option for an additional 100 million. This is of course nowhere near enough given that the population of Europe is over 500 million people. Of course the EU could very easily have covered that shortfall (as reported in Der Spiegel), as Pfizer offered an additional 500 million doses of the vaccine which the Commission rejected – because they didn’t want to be seen as favouring one member states product over another. It is also rumoured that Macron himself intervened to ensure that a French produced vaccine, which is yet to even finish testing, should also be considered for purchase.

All the while that this politicking has been taking place in Brussels, millions across the continent have suffered. Their children going without schooling, their businesses sitting shut with no signs of when they can reopen, and the prospect of mass unemployment lingering over them. From start to finish the European Commission’s response to this crisis has left much to be desired.

And whilst most EU Member States put their faith in the European Commission to handle the procurement for them, one state chose to bend the rules. The German government, in a move that has been widely criticised by politicians and the media, went over the heads of the EU and bought additional vaccines to cover themselves, even whilst other member states were fell short of the numbers they needed.

Of course the vaccine debacle is just the latest in a long string of mistakes made by the European Union since the start of this crisis. From the failure to waive state aid rules at a point when millions risked losing their jobs, to the dismissive tone taken by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when the Italian government asked for help at the beginning. The EU risks alienating the people it claims to serve as a result of its disastrous response.

At the same time, it’s clear that this series of mishaps can’t go unanswered for. The European Commission should be held accountable for every mistake and lapse of judgement it has made from start to finish. Vague half apologies in the Plenary Chamber of the European Parliament simply aren’t enough – a radical rethink of the way in which the EU behaves during a crisis is needed, with more power needing to go back to the Member States.

The beginning of this crisis showed what EU Member States were capable of when they worked together on a bilateral basis. Polish doctors flew to support Italian hospitals, Czech medical equipment was flown to Spain on NATO logistics routes, Belgian patients where offered hospital beds in neighbouring Germany. All of this whilst the European Commission sat struggling to make its mind up. Once again, cooperation between friendly nations triumphed over directives from the Berlaymont.