The European Union during Covid-19: overpromising, yet under-delivering

By Conrad Yiridoe

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EU Commission President Ursyla von der Leyen

The EU is right to protect all of its citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic by negotiating for vaccinations for all 27 member states. However, they need to tread much more carefully and pragmatically to avoid further avoidable issues. Multiple mistakes continue to hamper their best efforts, and the latest situation with their various negotiations will continue to make matters even harder going forward and break the faith in the organisation of the EU, not only during Covid-19 but also in the future when other major events come up.

The mistakes the EU has committed during this pandemic have (so far) peaked with the disastrous declaration of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, followed by the abrupt retraction of the declaration causing significant criticism and confusion, across the continent. With Article 16, the EU essentially attempted to control how much vaccine could be exported from the EU region. This situation follows the EU’s continued embarrassment with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, in which Oxford-AstraZeneca confirmed to the EU that a reduction of up to 60%  from the original number of vaccine doses would be supplied as a result of production issues at two plants in Belgium and the Netherlands. This is despite the insistence from the companies that there would be no issues with the vaccine supply chain.

This is not the first major issue that the EU has been involved in where the idea of keeping things in house, rather than to focus on sharing supplies globally. In 2019, the debate over the export ban of masks and other PPE from EU countries, which Germany and France were strongly in favour of last year. Though not the same, the similarities between this and the protectionist in-chief former American president Donald Trump and his attempts to block the export of 3M masks in the same year.

Another serious situation that the EU struggled to manage was during the migration crisis of 2015.  Despite having experiences in the past with having to manage a large number of migrants (though not quite to the scale in this crisis), there were still significant issues associated with attempting to house them.  In this case, it was Germany whom eventually took the lead by continuing to keep the doors open to a significant number of migrants to be able to enter the country, at a time when many other EU nations were instead closing their borders for a variety of different reasons, from xenophobia to simple lack of resources. The point here being that at a time when the EU should have been realistic in their efforts to provide aid and support, they ultimately were not able to cope without significant internal squabbling and disagreement amongst their members. The EU over promised on how many migrants could be safely housed in the union, then under delivered when multiple EU countries declined to take in the higher numbers that the EU wanted. This lack of cohesion amongst EU countries has also been see during the last major health global crisis, Ebola, where some of the lessons learned during the crisis have not been fully utilised during this current pandemic.

It is clear that the EU is battling to maintain the fine line of protecting their citizens and ensuring optimal vaccination supplies for all member states, whilst also trying to maintain the appearance of a lack of protectionism in order to ensure a fair supply to all countries worldwide. There have been a number of missteps along this path already (the biggest so far unquestionably being the recent declaration and retraction of Article 16). The EU have dealt with major situations in the past and they will continue to do so in the future, although the path forward will not be without significant hiccups and obstacles. Though steps have been made to apologise and move on from this issue, the ability of the EU to manage this unprecedented global crisis will depend on their ability to maintain composure and work efficiently in a way that is accountable both to their member states as well as to the whole world.