When Covid-19​ hit Europe last spring, EU member states closed their borders and started to hoard protective equipment. Brussels, which has no real public health mandate, appeared helpless. Nationalists celebrated: their idée fixe – keeping out refugees – had become possible overnight. The spectre of beggar-thy-neighbour ‘vaccine nationalism’ seemed very real. Trump, faithful to his style of transactional politics, announced that his administration would try to acquire German pharmaceutical companies and monopolise supply. In response, Paris and Berlin joined forces and, with Rome and Amsterdam, formed a kind of Kerneuropa immunity initiative. Without waiting for other EU countries to join, the alliance began negotiations with AstraZeneca and others, determined not to let the US seize future supplies or control manufacture. What was termed the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance was the very opposite, however, and the nightmarish spectacle of the entire continent fighting over vaccines proved too much. By June, health ministers of the 27 EU states agreed to have the European Commission procure jabs on their behalf.

For Brussels, the task was a unique opportunity to deliver on its rhetoric of supranationalism: complex problems such as vaccine procurement could be solved only by working together. Macron, in post-Brexit mode, had promised in 2017 ‘a Europe that protects’, a ‘sovereign EU’ proving its worth to Europeans in daily life. Merkel had politely ignored him. During the Trump years, she seemed content to be the figurehead for the free world and the last pillar of the liberal international order; she hasn’t used her final term in office to create an EU that stands for anything other than fiscal discipline and punishment.

For the European Commission, with its PR mindset, the prospect of inoculating Europeans and donating generously to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative (Covax) meant a chance to reassert what, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, had been touted as the EU’s ‘normative power’ on the global stage. The commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, appeared to be the perfect person for the crisis: an experienced administrator and trained doctor, with a master’s degree in public health and a profound commitment to ‘l’amitié franco-allemande’. Her father was a prominent Christian Democrat who was director-general for competition at the EEC in the 1960s, so she grew up partly in Brussels, knows the French political class well and is trusted by both Merkel and Macron. Having served as Germany’s first female defence minister, she also seemed tough-minded enough to deploy the negotiating power of a bloc of 450 million people effectively.

Today Europe trails behind Israel, the UK, Chile, the US and Bahrain in terms of vaccine doses administered. Little more than 10 per cent of the population has received a first dose, and France and Germany are re-entering lockdown. What went wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the commission had little experience of procurement. The business of the EU as a whole is business, but the commission exists to regulate it, not to engage in whatever-it-takes spending sprees. As the journalist Wolfgang Münchau reminded us recently, European integration began with a Franco-German cartel for coal and steel, which means that fixating on prices is what it does, and so is balancing French and German interests (which in 2020 meant Sanofi and BioNTech). Contrary to those who would celebrate the venture capitalist Weltanschauung of Kate Bingham, Boris Johnson’s vaccine tsar, the problem is not Brussels’s ‘distant bureaucracy’, but the priorities of this bureaucracy, which would have been laudable under normal circumstances: ensuring the liability of vaccine producers (in the face of large anti-vax movements in France and Italy) and negotiating low prices (in response to the Eastern Europeans’ understandable desire for cheap jabs).

Von der Leyen may not have been so perfect, after all. Like many commission figures she is a national has-been. Once considered a potential successor to Merkel as chancellor (and candidate for the German presidency), she became marginal a decade ago. Postwar German politicians have struggled to make a success of being defence minister and she was no exception. Determined to reform the internal culture of the army, she encountered a good deal of sexism; equally determined to make use of a hefty increase in her defence budget, she poached a McKinsey director for her chief civil servant. An inordinate number of pricey contracts with external consultants followed; and what came to be known as the Berateraffäre eventually had to be scrutinised by a Bundestag committee. Despite the memory lapses of the McKinsey people and von der Leyen’s conveniently deleted mobile phone messages, the official report, published last summer, was damning. A committee member observed that, had the findings been known in 2019, von der Leyen could never have become commission president. (One of the less noticed effects of the continuous grand coalitions in Berlin is that ministers pay no political price for even the most egregious mistakes, as a consequence of non-aggression pacts about personnel; the only cause for resignation in the past dozen years or so has been plagiarism in doctoral dissertations – von der Leyen was, incidentally, also found guilty of this.)

While the commission was once the motor of integration, with forceful figures such as Jacques Delors in charge, it had been rendered ever more marginal during the Euro crisis. It retains the sole right to initiate legislation, but the shots are in effect called by the European Council, the body of member state governments. A strong leader might be able to push back against it, but von der Leyen lacked an electoral mandate. Her appointment made a mockery of the Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the leading candidate of the largest party in the European Parliament is supposed to be appointed head of the commission. Like Charles Michel, the Belgian head of the council, she was chosen because of her subservience to the Franco-German alliance.

Still, von der Leyen’s position has been near impossible. Had the commission engaged in unashamed vaccine protectionism by prohibiting exports (as, in effect, the US and UK have), it would not only have betrayed the EU’s free trade orthodoxies; it would also have looked hypocritical when asserting Europe’s ‘normative power’. Those who fault the EU for not adopting ‘Europe first’ can hardly preach international solidarity at the same time. And the commission can’t be held responsible for every country’s roll-out failures. In the highly decentralised Dutch system, the required vaccine freezers weren’t ready when shipments arrived (the always smug Mark Rutte blamed his health advisers). Macron, appointing himself France’s chief epidemiologist, refused to lock down properly in January. The most perplexing case, however, is Germany.

After their success in handling the first wave, the Christian Democrats soared in the polls. This led to complacency during the summer. Early on, Merkel chose to sideline parliament and make policy in conjunction with the heads of the sixteen Länder, an approach sensitive to local conditions and seemingly superior to that of super-centralised France. But in reality, the Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz was more like a cartoon version of the European Council, with all the disadvantages and none of the benefits. There are few leaks from the council; at the end of negotiations leaders stick to an agreed fiction of consensus. Merkel’s meetings dragged on over many nights, with insiders revealing embarrassing details (the health minister snacked on children’s chocolate bars); it also resulted in plenty of backbiting after formally collective decisions were made public.

Lockdowns were delayed in the autumn. In the face of what is called ‘die britische Mutante – which, the joke goes, sounds like an early 1980s punk band – measures were introduced, but only half-hearted ones. By March, Merkel’s government looked like Trump’s last April: case numbers were alarming, but opening-up still continued apace; the plan appeared to be to hope for the best, as more vaccines might materialise. The zigzagging on AstraZeneca – first allowed only for the young, then only for those over sixty – has confused people and led to a precipitous decline in trust.

The question of how to make what happened during the pandemic subject to democratic politics remains unsolved. After all, no conflict in a democracy explains itself; parties need to stage it. With the financial crisis, it was easy to identify the characters: either greedy bankers or spendthrifts taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford, depending on where you stood. One way to politicise the pandemic would seem to be to make a contrast between competence and incompetence. But that’s misleading: politics is always about choices and priorities (who will live and who might die). The premier of Saxony claimed recently that government policies haven’t been unjust; rather, ‘the virus is unjust.’ But no politician simply follows the science; what’s significant is one’s underlying theory of justice – and whether one avows it.

Democratic politics presumes the existence of a proper opposition holding governments to account and offering alternative policies – the very thing which, infamously, does not exist at EU level. As there cannot be opposition within the system, there only remains opposition to the system (primarily in the form of anti-EU parties). True, von der Leyen – now known in Brussels as ‘the minister for self-defence’ – was hauled in front of the European Parliament to account for the missing vaccine doses. But, just as in Germany, the grand coalition controlling the Parliament will perpetuate a culture of impunity.

The problem is not just the lack of a real opposition. It is also that a crucial precondition for accountability is missing: EU citizens’ sense of who is responsible for what. Plenty of national health experts were involved in procurement, and member states themselves chose how much to purchase from the vaccines the commission had acquired. Yet heads of government blame Brussels for things they did themselves, or for policies they signed up to behind closed doors. For instance, the cynical self-promoter Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of Austria, besieged at home because of a level of cronyism unacceptable even in that corporatist state, tried to divert attention by complaining that Austrians were receiving too few doses in the EU’s ‘vaccine bazaar’ – an accusation refuted by all other members (some nevertheless decided to redistribute jabs to countries such as Bulgaria that are desperately short). Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán, always keen to play off east and west, made a point of thumbing his nose at Brussels. He had acquired plenty of Sputnik V, which hasn’t been authorised by the European Medicines Agency (he has also been clamping down further on the free media, which threaten to expose the catastrophic state of Hungary’s health system after a decade of supposedly anti-neoliberal populism).

The EU took on a task that should have brought it popularity, but for which it was ill-prepared; in the end, it performed, to quote the German finance minister, in a ‘shitty way’. As with the common currency and the refugee crisis, the union acquired features of a state – but in an incomplete and ultimately incoherent way. The Euro couldn’t function without a common fiscal policy; the shared border has lacked a unified asylum policy. And, as so often, the commission over-promised: ‘l’Europe qui protège’ ended up protecting free trade at least as much as the lives of citizens. National leaders, even when deeply implicated in the shitty performance, continue the game they have always played: blame Brussels. Electorates are unlikely to punish them for it. Plenty of pundits rushed in last spring to proclaim that the virus would kill populism, because populism is allegedly anti-science. In some countries this might indeed be the case: one of the other astonishing things about the German example is that the government’s failures haven’t benefited the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, the only party not in power at any level and the only one to have opposed lockdowns in the name of ‘freedom’ (though, like the far right elsewhere, AfD found it difficult to pivot from ‘closing borders is great’ to suggesting that Covid-19 might not be such a big problem after all). If what happened after the financial crisis is any indication, citizens who feel that something went fundamentally wrong will want to throw out their sitting government, whatever the opposition party (José Luis Zapatero, the hapless Spanish prime minister voted out in 2011, was replaced by a Partido Popular ready to implement even crueller forms of austerity). But if these new governments also fall short, then the hour of the truly anti-system parties will come.

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