The European Union is fundamentally failing to manage the coronavirus crisis. Much of the continent remains locked down, member states are furious at the European Commission and 2021 looks set to be as difficult as 2020 across much of the Eurozone. The southern EU member states also risk losing the crucial summer season while the continent as a whole will now likely not see a return to any sense of “normalcy” until 2022.
Off to a Poor Start
From the very beginning of this crisis, it was abundantly clear that the only way out of it would be through the effective distribution of vaccines. This required moving fast and working with private-sector companies and experienced businesspeople. But the European Union quickly fell behind other major powers, including both the United Kingdom and United States.
By the first week of February, these failures had become visible to the wider world. While Israel had delivered 59 doses for every 100 people, “Brexit Britain” had delivered 15 doses and the United States 10. But the European Union had delivered less than 3. It is now widely accepted across the EU that this has been a colossal failure.
The Failures of the EU Commission
These failures reflect internal failures within the European Union or, more specifically, the European Commission.
Rather than employing an experienced businessperson to oversee the vaccine deals with the pharmaceutical companies, as Brexit Britain did, the EU employed trade negotiators. This led them to focus overwhelmingly on the price of vaccines rather than the question of when the vaccines would be delivered. When it became apparent that the pharmaceutical companies were distributing vaccines to other states that had moved more quickly, Ursula von der Leyen sought to blame the pharmaceutical companies rather than the poor decision-making process inside the European Union.
This dispute then escalated and, along the way, exposed the failings of the Commission. In a bizarre overreaction, the European Commission briefly considered triggering emergency provisions in the Brexit deal that would have established a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland so as to block the export of vaccines to the United Kingdom. While the European Commission later backtracked from this decision, serious political damage had already been inflicted on the organization, undermining its global reputation.
Remarkably, the dispute then continued with both Ursula von der Leyen and Emmanuel Macron openly questioning whether the UK vaccines were effective. Ironically, the people who warn the loudest about “post-truth” politics and “fake news” were now encouraging people to distrust the vaccines that were saving their lives. Research from the University of Oxford quickly undermined the claims of both von der Leyen and Macron.
One of the EU’s Worst Moments
This was an incredibly low moment for both the European Commission and the European Union, and one that has pulled back the curtain on deeper problems at the heart of the project. In a “normal” democracy, von der Leyen would have been held to account by an elected leader of the opposition and would be fully accountable to the people below. But in the European Union, where the President of the European Commission is nominated rather than democratically elected, no such mechanisms are possible.
For the British, the crisis is a powerful reminder of why they voted for Brexit. When the country first joined the European Community in 1975, the people’s main reason for joining had been economic pragmatism – the belief that European integration worked. But today that is a much harder argument to make.
Growing Division Between Member States
Over the past twenty years, northern Eurozone states like Germany and the Netherlands have moved increasingly ahead of the southern states. Living standards, wages and growth have stagnated in the south, particularly for lower-income voters. And while the European Union recently committed to a €750 billion recovery fund, representing around 4 per cent of GDP, almost every expert knows that with much of the continent still in lockdown and the vaccines being poorly managed, this will simply not be anywhere near enough money.
If anything, the crisis looks set to pour gasoline on the existing inequalities at the heart of the Eurozone and in time that will have political effects.
For the Brexit voters, this confirms their belief that the EU expanded beyond its means, is insufficiently democratically accountable and lacks both the political and fiscal powers that would otherwise be required to resolve these big crises. Coronavirus has underlined this view – indeed, in the midst of the pandemic only 30 per cent of British people said they had a “favorable” view of the EU. Before coronavirus, some people wondered if the British would change their minds and try and rejoin the EU. Nobody is saying that anymore.
COVID-19 is the EU’s Third Crisis in a Row to be Poorly Managed
Coronavirus is the third crisis in a row that has been poorly managed by the EU, after the sovereign debt crisis that followed the Great Recession and the refugee crisis which erupted in 2014, and which has still not really been resolved. Nor have the lingering ‘rule of law’ issues between east and west -with the governments in Poland and Hungary stronger than ever. And if you look beneath the surface then you will find widespread public distrust in major EU institutions. For example, according to the latest Eurobarometer data only 38 percent of Italians trust the European Parliament (compared to 55 percent of Germans).
The beneficiaries of this will be the populist parties, which remain a visible force in many EU member states. While there is no doubt that some populists have struggled during this crisis, others like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands or Brothers of Italy seem to be doing better in the polls. Already in 2021, we have seen the Chega movement in Portugal poll well at presidential elections while a recent poll on the forthcoming presidential election in France next year puts Marine Le Pen on 48 percent against Macron at 52 percent – the highest level of support on record for Le Pen. The more recent arrival of Prime Minister Draghi in Italy will also likely encourage a backlash among voters in Italy who want democracy not technocracy. Just as there was a backlash to Mario Monti, which paved the way for Five Star, there will likely be a backlash to Draghi. Amid the latest crisis to have rocked Europe, it is already not hard to see the seeds that will blossom into the next wave of political revolts against Brussels.