In an EU where passportless travel has been disrupted by the need to test, isolate, quarantine cases, a widely recognized proof of vaccination will offer a route to normal, pre-pandemic life to those who will get the vaccine – writes Dalibor ROHAC
.The European Union’s handling of the pandemic of COVID-19 has been criticized on many fronts. So much so that the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in an interview with the German weekly “Wirtschaftswoche” said that the European Commission “is not ready to continue to play the role of a scapegoat.” You can understand her frustration. The EU’s competencies in the area of public health are generally limited. The bloc was never supposed to be purchasing and stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) and didn’t have the resources to do so. When pandemic started, national governments held oftentimes different views about the situation that ought to be tackled, depending on their appetites for risk and understandings of the trade-offs involved. Some imposed early lockdowns and border closures, while others (most prominently Sweden) took a more relaxed approach.
It is true that the EU was slow to agree on the contours of the next Multi-annual Financial Framework and the pandemic rescue package, the Next Generation EU – especially in contrast to the speed with which US Congress allocated public funds to the initial relief bill adopted in March 2020. But it is simply a fact of life, and not a failure of European institutions, that it is hard to get 27 states to agree on big-spending proposals and their funding. It was, for example, the insistence of some Central European countries, including Poland, on removing the rule-of-law mechanism protecting the EU’s budget that caused a significant delay in getting to an agreement.
Yet, it is not “scapegoating” to criticize the EU, and specifically Ms von der Leyen’s Commission, for their failure to deliver on a task that that was explicitly delegated to them by member states: vaccine procurement.
The Commission acted late, its initial purchase commitments were too small, and unlike other countries, it sought to bargain hard on prices – leading to the current shortage. Instead of owning up to the fiasco, it sought to deflect the blame by lashing out against Astra Zeneca, contributing to a decline in trust in the vaccine. Of course, member states, especially France and Germany, bear a portion of responsibility too, mainly for their own sluggish distribution and also for misleading communication regarding the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which President Macron wrong called “ineffective” for older people.
With vaccines, the EU has a geopolitical problem at its hands too. While the EU is struggling to secure the vaccines for its 27 member states, China and Russia are aggressively marketing their vaccines, including in Europe. Russia has already sold Sputnik V to Hungary and Slovakia, and Orban has also bought 5 million doses of Sinopharm from China. Meanwhile, Italy is planning, like Serbia, to acquire a license to manufacture Sputnik V at home. If such countries emerge out of the pandemic sooner than those that played by the common European rules, so to speak, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese forces will have a strong talking point.
Moreover, Chinese and Russian vaccines are part of hybrid warfare. As the two regimes are trying to sell them to increasingly desperate governments, they are also investing in disinformation about Western vaccines, unwittingly assisted (as in the case of Astra Zeneca) by Western politicians.
The vaccine fiasco and the EU’s likely prospect of lagging far behind the United States, UK, Israel (and possibly Serbia) in terms of achieving herd immunity will be a serious blow to the EU’s prestige.
Should we be concerned that the rollout of the EU’s vaccine passports might prove a similar failure? Perhaps. But it is also clear that the measure has no alternative. In an EU where passportless travel has been disrupted by the need to test, isolate, quarantine cases, a widely recognized proof of vaccination will offer a route to normal, pre-pandemic life to those who will get the vaccine – providing along the way a strong incentive to get the vaccine to some of the more hesitant segments of European populations.
.Unlike vaccine procurement, “green passes” are a policy that the EU is actually equipped to deliver rather well. Its success will require setting a process and following rules – something that the EU has done quite well – and not an entrepreneurial initiative, risk-taking, and hard decisions under uncertainty. As long as the EU countries (and possibly others, such as the UK) can agree on common standards for reporting and proving who has been vaccinated, getting a workable system off the ground ought not to be difficult.