‘The EU has gone full Trump’

Brussels correspondent Bruno Waterfield on the EU’s vaccine meltdown.

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The EU’s vaccine nightmare continues. While Europe’s leaders are preparing for a possible third wave of Covid, the UK has vaccinated nearly 30million people. In desperation, the EU has renewed its threats of vaccine export bans, following a chaotic row about the safety of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine last week. Why have things gone so badly wrong in Europe? spiked caught up with Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent for The Times, to find out. (An audio version of this interview was recorded for the spiked podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)

spiked: We are speaking on Thursday, as EU leaders moot potential controls on vaccine exports to the UK. Can you fill us in on some of the latest goings-on in Europe?

Bruno Waterfield: On Wednesday, the European Commission brought in changes to regulations around vaccine exports. These changes could result in restrictions which block shipments – an export ban to all countries apart from African ones. The Commission has introduced two new criteria that are very important. One is reciprocity – the EU does not want to export vaccines to countries that make vaccines but don’t export them back to Europe. The other is proportionality or equivalence – the EU does not want to export vaccines to countries that have a higher vaccination rate and better overall epidemiological picture than the EU.

That puts Britain in the frame, because the British vaccination programme is three times as far ahead as the EU’s. It’s that fact – that Brexit Britain is ahead – that is sending the EU a little bit mad. Remember how dingbat deranged people went in Britain after the Brexit vote? The bedwetting hysteria? It’s a bit like that in Europe over vaccines. The EU, which is supposed to be a great champion of free trade and multilateralism, which ranted and raved about Donald Trump, has itself gone full Trump by contemplating export bans.

The factories which make most of the world’s vaccines are based in the EU. If the EU pulls up the drawbridge, it will effectively destroy its own pharmaceutical industry. It’s also worth remembering that the Pfizer factory in Belgium, just outside Antwerp, actually relies on British factories for the viral-vector lipids that are used in its manufacturing process. The supply chains for international pharma are just that – international.

All this is a great distraction for the EU – away from doing what it should be doing, which is getting jabs into people’s arms.

spiked: One of the most shocking elements of this saga has been EU leaders’ smear campaign against the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine. The latest accusation seems to be that AZ is hiding millions of jabs from Europeans. There must be a political side to this?

Waterfield: Yes. There’s a witch hunt against AstraZeneca.

Britain authorised the AZ vaccine quite quickly. Since then, AZ production has not been a huge success. But it’s also true that Britain’s contract with AZ comes first. As compensation for the fact that it messed up its own vaccine procurement, the Commission is blaming AZ and the UK government. It seems to think that AZ and the evil Boris Johnson are engaged in some kind of supply conspiracy against the EU. But it has no evidence for that.

Then there is this safety question. As soon as the UK authorised the AZ jab, the EU and European governments started questioning it. Then, when the jab was authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a procession of countries led by Germany and France refused to give the jab to over-65s because, they claimed, the quality of the trial data for this age group wasn’t sufficient.

There was no evidence to suggest that the vaccine wasn’t efficacious in older people. And these age restrictions meant tens of millions of Europeans in the most vulnerable age range for Covid did not get the vaccine. That certainly led to loss of life.

A couple of weeks ago, there were some cases of very rare cerebral blood clotting among people who had received the AZ jab. Globally, over 20million AZ jabs had been administered and there were just 25 cases of this clotting. But Germany suspended use of the vaccine. France and Italy had to follow suit, as did other countries like the Netherlands. But Belgium said no, saying the bigger risk was to stop vaccinating people. The EMA said the vaccine was still perfectly safe to use – so Germany and France were going against their own regulator. This shows the political nature of the decisions. And it highlights the EU’s risk-aversion, as well as its commitment to the precautionary principle.

When the history books are written, this will be seen as a particularly shabby chapter for the EU – and it has a few of those.

spiked: Obviously, there has been a series of mistakes made in this crisis in relation to vaccines. But does that speak to a deeper problem with the EU’s governing philosophy?

Waterfield: Yes, it really does. It speaks to a profound malaise in European political culture. What were the governments of important states like Germany and France thinking when they outsourced the commissioning of vital medicines to a bunch of middle-ranking lawyers in Brussels?

The EU wants to make decision-making technocratic and to hide behind institutions. It was very interesting to see the German health minister, Jens Spahn, talk about Germany’s decision to suspend the AZ jab. He kept talking about public confidence in the vaccine and in the medical authorities. Of course, what Germany and other countries actually did was undermine trust in the vaccine, in the name of shoring up their own authority. This is the problem with the precautionary principle – it departs from science in favour of reassuring people. It has become about handing out comfort blankets rather than vaccines.

This saga has also shown how hostile the EU is when faced with a contest with an independent country like Britain. In many ways, that contest is one of ideas – and the EU is losing it. Instead of getting better, the EU just wants to kill the contest. After all, it is fundamentally an organisation determined to snuff out the idea of politics as a battle of ideas. If that battle isn’t visible or isn’t there at all, it’s very difficult for the public to judge the rulers.

Hopefully, the EU might learn lessons from this mess. But looking back at the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis and Brexit, we can see that the EU does not learn lessons.

Bruno Waterfield was speaking to Fraser Myers for the latest episode of the spiked podcast. Listen to the full episode here:

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