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EU vaccine debacle revealed its limits as a strategic actor

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The European Commission has come under heavy criticism for the slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccination programs in EU states. Angelos Chryssogelos assesses what the case tells us about the EU’s aspirations to become an effective strategic actor.

The vaccine crisis, where the EU found itself in a public row with a pharmaceutical company and faced with a diplomatic emergency with the UK over controls on vaccine exports to Northern Ireland, has raised questions evident on the internal governance of the EU and the vaccination program. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, however, is what the crisis says about the EU as a strategic actor.

The analogy between health and foreign policy is less far-fetched than it first appears. Like foreign policy, health is an area of ​​national competence, with EU authorities mainly playing a coordinating role. Negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, which the EU has undertaken on behalf of all its members, have a strategic dimension during a pandemic. In theory, the EU negotiated with market players, but as it became painfully clear, it was competing with other states for priority in the vaccine queue. In short, vaccines are today a test for any actor claiming strategic sovereignty, and the crisis has revealed many shortcomings on the part of the EU.

First, the vaccine debacle has revealed the dominant influence of national priorities on EU actions, especially in an area where Member States retain great latitude. By most accounts, the crisis was sparked by reluctant public opinion and party politics in Germany, where federal elections will be held in the fall, followed quickly by complaints in France. It has also been reported that the hastily announced export controls have been promoted within the Commission by actors closely linked to some national capitals. While it had a strategy in place, the Commission was forced to bow to the impatience of the Member States.

Second, the management of the crisis casts doubt on one of the main elements praised by supporters of a strategic Europe: the use of economic tools for strategic objectives. The EU’s clumsy efforts to enforce vaccine export controls have backfired on Northern Ireland’s blunder. Press articles revealed a lack of coordination between the directorates as well as a general lack of leadership from the top of the Berlaymont, the exact opposite of strategic action.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lfven, Credit: European Council

Third, unlike UK efforts to facilitate vaccine research, development and production early on, the EU has approached the issue as a matter of international economic negotiation, where it has traditionally excelled. He saw the purchase of vaccines as another area where, by taking advantage of his size, he could get the best possible deal for European consumers while setting an example for the rest of the world in short, another business opportunity. act as a normative power according to the academic cliché. But being prescriptive is not always the same as securing your own interests in an emergency.

The vaccine crisis has vividly shown that self-identification as a strategic actor is very different from it in reality. What is most urgent is that the EU must seriously rethink the coordination between its political and economic tools. The creation of a post to assess the external consequences of all Commission actions, in cooperation with the European External Action Service, would be useful.

Fourth, this episode demonstrates that a strategic EU does not always have to presuppose more EU. While in some areas joint action will be necessary, in others action by Member States collectively, in groups or in some cases even individually may be more effective. In such cases, the Commission will be valuable as a hub for coordination and information exchange, a role which, if well executed, will increase its stature more than failed attempts to acquire knowledge. new skills. At the same time, if the EU institutions are charged with managing a crisis, they must be allowed to implement their strategy without undue interference from the member states.

Finally, the EU’s confident view of its strengths, such as the size of its market and its reputation for political competence, has been belied by the success of small players like the UK in securing vaccines. The EU’s position was also undermined by the decision to hastily shed its self-declared normative role in favor of a more combative posture when things started to turn ugly, which ultimately made matters worse. . We can imagine that all of these models play out in a foreign policy crisis. Indeed, there are nuances in the dilemmas and indecision the EU has faced in managing difficult relations with Russia, China or Turkey.

In other words, the EU must be less self-referential when dealing with the outside world. Not all strategic challenges can fit into the framework of previous political and legal plans, and acting strategically requires serious preparation and thought on the part of the EU rather than just weighing its weight. The damage to the policy and reputation of the vaccine debacle may seem significant, but the EU at least has the potential to become a more serious international player if it takes these hard lessons into account.


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view and not the position of EUROPP European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: European Council


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