For weeks, the European Union lashed out at about everybody but itself over the continent-wide shortage of anti-coronavirus vaccines. Among its complaints: at least one drug company had breached a sales contract with the EU.
Von der Leyen: Only she needs to know?
EU officials got the company, AstraZeneca, to overcome commercial privacy concerns and publish the contract. AstraZeneca had agreed to supply the vaccine, the document specified, but the amount and timing depended on its “best efforts.” This of course left plenty of wiggle room for lawyers to haggle over, in case the issue ever gets to court.
Curiously, the two sides agreed to redact parts of the contract perhaps of most interest to EU taxpayers and to millions of people fearful of contagion: the price the EU paid and the calendar and amounts of vaccines to be delivered. The whole document was available only on a “Need to know basis.”
This, even though the EU said the document’s release showed that, “Transparency and accountability are important to help build the trust of European citizens.”
Well, if all this was meant to bolster confidence, it failed. Criticism of the EU’s vaccine performance is widespread in Europe and continuing. At one extreme, critics predict the end of the EU’s grand project of ever-closer political union. Others limited themselves to demanding the resignation of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission in charge of negotiating vaccine purchases. Individual countries are going off the EU grid to seek vaccines elsewhere.
And the EU Commission’s habitual secrecy didn’t help.
The vaccine rollout was supposed to show that the EU, representing 27 members states, would be both more efficient and fairer than lone national governments acting on their own. The value of belonging to the EU as a whole was deemed at stake. When the first supply of vaccines on the scene, von der Leyen called theprogram a “touching moment of unity” and a “European success story.”
The moment quickly turned into dismay. EU national leaders watched unhappily as the previously-scorned United Kingdom, recently Brexited from the EU, as well as Donald Trump’s America First United States, raced ahead with both vaccine procurement and delivery.
To recap: In June, 2020, European nations, under pressure from Germany, decided to leave vaccine procurement to the EU Commission. Between August and November, the commission concluded the first of its contracts with vaccine-producing companies: Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca and Curevac.
Oddly, some companies that were ahead in producing promising vaccines were initially left out: the multinational Pfizer-BioNTech partnership and the American firm Moderna. In July, the U.S. secured 600 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 500 million doses from Moderna.
The EU didn’t place concrete orders until mid-November and ordered far less than it could have: The EU only secured 200 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, with an option for 100 million more that would be manufactured later. According to Der Speigel magazine, BioNTech had additional production capacity and offered up to 500 million doses in the first round. The offer was not taken up.
Then, Pfizer and BioNTech informed Brussels that it would initially supply far less vaccine than it had planned. AstraZeneca followed with an announcement that it would only deliver 31 million doses by the end of March instead of 80 million Europe had expected.
Guntram Wolff, head of the Bruegel research institute in Brussels, was quoted as saying, “The commission was quite late, risk averse, cautious and too conscious of cost.” Money spent by the EU—over about 4 billion Euros–was vastly less than the $18 billion Trump administration outlay.
The EU response to supply and delivery problems? First, finger pointing. Officials blamed the UK and the US for pirating excess amounts. The EU threatened to block exports of vaccines produced on continental soil to anywhere. Then to impose a so-called hard border on Northern Ireland to make sure nothing from the continent snuck into the UK.
Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giusseppe Conte threatened to sue Pfizer. Von der Leyen told companies to inform the EU of any vaccine exports from the continent. She decided also to put the responsibility for shortages on the EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovski.
On Feb. 5 for the first time, von der Leyen accepted responsibility, sort of. The Commission had made mistakes. EU decision-making is sometimes slow compared with national states. “Of course, a country on its own can be a speed boat, the EU is more like a tanker,” she said.
But the problem also lies in the habitual secrecy of the European Commission, which frequently presents its decisions as faits accomplis, without public or even parliamentary oversight.
The AstraZeneca contract was released only after the EU Ombudsman announced a probe into the Commission’s handling of the vaccine negotiations, and especially, “The Commission’s refusal to give public access to documents concerning the purchase of vaccines against COVID-19.”
The Commission has for years pledged more openness, but getting access to documents remains a chore for the public and press. Without transparency, “The possibility of holding those exercising powers to account does not exist,” wrote the European Law Blog, which publishes assessments of EU activities by legal scholars.
“A lack of transparency is one of the breeding grounds for misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories, reducing the public to recipients of rumors and falsified information designed to sway emotions,” the site added.
Translation: the real danger is needless and heedless secrecy creates wild uncertainty that feeds anti-EU populism.