Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

The European Union prides itself on its habit of emerging stronger from crises. Its chaotic vaccine rollout may prove the exception to the rule.

The move by several countries to suspend AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid vaccine over concerns about its safety — against the advice of the bloc’s regulator — is exposing flaws in the communal system that threaten to weaken the EU politically and economically.

According to several European officials, the decisions taken in capitals from Copenhagen to Rome were made without any coordination with each other or the EU executive in Brussels. Italy and France indicated later on Tuesday that they’re ready to lift the suspensions. But the result is that what appears to be a unilateral free-for-all risks further harming the bloc’s return to economic health and reputation as a whole.

Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

“It looks like quite an uncoordinated, spontaneous decision, perhaps out of political nervousness,” Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, referring to the original suspensions. He said such moves were “devastating” for a rapid vaccine rollout. 

The 27-nation bloc was slow out the gates to begin vaccinating its 450 million inhabitants, especially in comparison to the post-Brexit U.K. The relative speed at which the U.K. has inoculated its population, offering the prospect of reopening shops and businesses and even travel abroad, has been a key driving force behind the pound’s rally this year. Sterling rose to a one-year high against the euro in February, threatening the further indignity for Europe of soon witnessing Britons able to holiday on the continent and getting a bargain while doing so.

The sense of rudderlessness and panic in the EU was compounded this week when countries including its biggest economies suspended use of the AstraZeneca shot to examine potential side effects as reports emerged of serious blood clotting after inoculation. The European Medicines Agency, the bloc-wide regulator, insisted it was safe and said the move risked undermining trust in vaccines. It is due to give definitive guidance on Thursday.

Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

A slow take-up in vaccinations will come at a high price by keeping businesses under virus curbs for longer, according to Maeva Cousin, an economist at Bloomberg Economics, who estimates the economic loss for each week that restrictions linger at about 3% of gross domestic product. That’s at a time when Europe risks being left behind by President Joe Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion U.S. stimulus, which he aims to follow with a separate infrastructure program.

With Covid deaths on the rise again and governments prolonging or re-tightening lockdowns, the political ramifications of the mess that Europe finds itself in are profound.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said she’ll step down this year after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s dominant power, saw her Christian Democratic Union suffer historic defeats in state elections on Sunday that were a test of voter opinion before September’s federal ballot. Support for her bloc in a weekly national poll released Wednesday plunged against the backdrop of the slow rollout, and Merkel is facing opposition calls to sack her health minister following the AstraZeneca suspension.

Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

Mario Draghi’s honeymoon period as Italian prime minister came to an abrupt halt after barely a month, as infections hit three-month highs and he shut down schools again.

Perhaps most damaging of all for Europe’s political outlook, French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces an election in the spring of 2022, has watched his lead over far-right challenger Marine le Pen grow ever narrower as she lands blows over his handling of the pandemic.

“The EU’s vaccine rollout, or the lack thereof, will have long lasting effects on European politics, could see incumbent governments lose power, and could hinder economic recovery particularly in worst-hit countries,” said Camino Mortera, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels.

Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

In the EU’s decision-making bodies, as in capitals from Berlin to Lisbon, officials are asking how Europe got into such dire straits.

In the eyes of EU officials, flamboyant populists such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson failed to afford the pandemic the gravity it required, unlike Europe with its more staid, safety-first attitude. But where the bloc’s more cautious approach helped keep its mortality rate down last year, it may have hindered its cause once vaccines became available.

Whereas the U.K. government gambled early on vaccine investment and rushed through emergency approval to get people inoculated fast, the EU’s more rigid adherence to scientific process rendered it sluggish. That lack of flexibility was one reason cited by Brexiters for leaving the bloc, and it may have played a role in the AstraZeneca impasse.

The EU has now administered 11 doses per 100 people, compared to 33 doses in the U.S. and 39 doses in the U.K., according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

Still, the EU has legitimate concerns over a shortfall in vaccine deliveries. That is especially true of U.K.-produced AstraZeneca — regardless of European reluctance to use it — with only about a third of the original doses due to be delivered in the first half. In a sign of potential tension with the U.S., the Biden administration rebuffed European pleas to share its shots, saying Americans must be vaccinated first.

Europe’s Latest Vaccine Controversy Risks Being a Crisis Too Far

The EU is often accused of having slow processes but this episode shows how fundamental safety is for the bloc, according to a French official. The official stressed that the suspensions had been coordinated, and said that Macron exchanged texts with Merkel on the matter and spoke by phone with Draghi on Tuesday morning.

Governments insisted that the decision to suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t a politically motivated effort to punish the company for its delivery failings or because it’s seen as a post-Brexit U.K. success story. The move was “a precautionary one,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza told an online health conference.

But that’s not a view shared everywhere. One European government official said the foundations for the present situation were laid early in the vaccination rollout when Germany said efficacy concerns meant it wouldn’t use AstraZeneca to inoculate the elderly. That put pressure on other countries to follow suit. Several EU officials said Germany’s decision to suspend the shot had a similar knock-on effect around the bloc.

In a commentary to mark Europe Day on May 9 last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen invoked the spirit of Robert Schuman, one of the EU’s founding fathers, who showed that “getting out of moments of crisis required new political thinking and breaking from the past.” During the pandemic, she said, “we must do the same.”

“We must recognize that the Europe that will come out of this crisis cannot and will not be the same as the one that entered it,” she said. 

Whether it is stronger or weaker now hangs in the balance.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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