By Jack Cross
It’s safe to say that it has been a difficult few years for the EU. And while the process of an ‘ever closer union’ has never been a straightforward one, the European project has nevertheless endured. In recent months, however, the EU has had to grapple with the most serious challenge it has faced since its inception, the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Coronavirus is simultaneously the European Commission’s greatest test and opportunity to date, its appearance has offered the chance to demonstrate an ability to act as a federal executive for all 27 member states. The performance of the Commission has consequences both in its members national localities and internationally, as it will show to the rest of the world whether or not it is able to perform effectively as a single actor. Success here would help project the image that non-member states around the world should do business with the Commission, not individual member states.
Despite high hopes, the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines across Europe has been fraught with difficulty. Many have directed blame towards the European Commission for problems with region-wide distribution efforts and the delays or halts to various national vaccination programs.
So, what exactly went wrong with the vaccine roll-out and how does this reflect on the European Commission? The EU’s approach mirrored that of most federal governments, which retained powers concerning vaccine contracts and distribution, while sub-federal bodies oversaw lockdowns and other restrictive measures. The EU wide scheme for vaccine purchase and distribution was optional, though all 27 member states chose to opt-in . This was a vote of confidence in the Commission’s plan.
The defining error in the Commission’s plan was the placing of an order for 300 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine in August 2020. Given the scale of the production required, this was a relatively delayed decision. By direct comparison, the UK government had placed an order for 100 million doses of the same vaccine in May. This late decision caused significant problems with the vaccine supply chain, with the EU and Astra-Zeneca being forced to reduce their targets for vaccinations in the first quarter of this year to 31 million a reduction of 60% on the original target. One consequence of the troubled vaccine procurement process was the decision by the Hungarian government to begin trialling the Russian Sputnik vaccine, a clear blow to the EU’s collective approach.
Now it is certainly true that the EU are not alone in having problems with the vaccine rollout, the Biden Administration in the United States has inherited a situation in which the US roll-out plan was non-existent. However, no one has questioned the viability of American federal governance, while the same cannot be said for the position of the European Commission. As long as there are doubters within and without the EU, the European Commission and Parliament has to constantly prove it is capable and offers reliable partnership, both for its member states and on the international stage. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, admitted in a necessary act of contrition, that there had been failures in the Commission’s handling of the vaccine roll-out. It is crucial now that the Commission can lead the region out of the pandemic and the accompanying financial crisis, thereby reasserting its ability to present the union as a single actor. Already the Commission has proposed a recovery fund worth €750 billion and it will likely offer further assistance to member states as the focus turns towards the post-COVID landscape.
Pushing beyond the specific problems of the vaccine roll-out, the challenge of the current pandemic comes at a crucial time for the EU and the Commission. In the post-Brexit landscape, creating a renewed purpose and vision for the union has been central to the work of senior European politicians. Upon assuming the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen pledged to transform the body into a ‘geopolitical commission’ with a new sub-commission group to work on ‘external coordination’. This is no small ambition, and will likely become a key part of the Commission’s role in the coming years.
Though, a problem remains, in that no one is yet to work out exactly what that role would be. The European Commission has laid out an impressive array of policies concerning the climate crisis, an area in which the EU could become a global leader. But the Commission will be reliant on the co-operation of the EU’s national governments in order to achieve its climate goals. Only time will tell if the fallout from the vaccine roll-out has shaken the faith of member states in the viability of the European Commission as a single actor for the whole region.
While it is yet to be seen if Brexit will trigger a domino effect of EU secessionism, the union still faces huge challenges going forward, particularly in projecting itself as a single actor on the world stage. This is not to say that the vaccine roll-out has dashed any hope of the EU being treated as a legitimate single actor, simply that doubts in its ability to do so have grown. Unlike most nation states, regional organisations and supranational bodies must constantly reaffirm their legitimacy through demonstrable utility. The glitches in the vaccine roll-out have been a setback but one that the European Commission will be able to overcome, repairing the damage to its reputation through leading the region in its post-pandemic recovery.
Jack Cross is currently pursuing a masters in the History of War in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His main research interests are diplomatic history, the role of great and middle powers within current international politics, as well as the politics of the Balkans and Middle East.