The view of the continent across the English Channel is becoming increasingly depressing with each passing day. In the UK, more and more shops and services are receiving permits to restart their activity. Britons are preparing for holidays in warmer countries, and normal life is returning. Thanks to vaccinating 53 percent of adults, the UK is coming closer and closer to herd immunity.
Meanwhile, the EU can only dream of such a thing.
On Wednesday, the number of infected in France grew to 26,000 and was even higher in Poland. Both countries are falling back on freezing social life, much like other member states such as Belgium. Barely 10 percent of adults have been vaccinated in the EU. The death toll is still mounting by the thousands.
This bodes the question of who is responsible for the situation. There are certainly many at fault. On Wednesday, for the first time in her 16 years of governance, Angela Merkel took some of the responsibility. Germany’s federal system of government, normally a great advantage, turned out not to be so useful when quick and unanimous decisions had to be made for the whole country.
In France, President Macron made several grave errors, such as recently doubting the efficiency of AstraZeneca vaccines. In Poland and other countries from our region, the growing number of casualties is overshadowing the successes of governments in the first months of the pandemic.
Yet Brussels also bears much of the fault here. By receiving broad competencies to purchase vaccines last summer, despite not having experience in healthcare politics, Brussels bet on lowering vaccine prices instead of lowering delivery times. As it turns out, the latter was absolutely key.
The bill for these offenses is not counted in just the death toll and economic losses. It also comes with a political cost.
In Germany, the governing CDU is falling in the polls. In France, Marine Le Pen is growing into a serious rival for Macron in next year’s presidential elections.
Pressure is mounting to find an exit route from this stalemate, even if that route is unconventional or risky. France and Italy are demanding the introduction of a system that would block the export of vaccines from the EU to countries that have been successful in vaccinating their populations but are not selling vaccines to Europe. They demand this even if it would go against signed contracts. Yet such a strategy could only deepen current issues. From Belgium to Sweden, from Holland to Finland, small countries that rely on free trade oppose this idea. They do not want Brussels to become the spokesperson of protectionism. Chancellor Merkel also has doubts.
When the EU needs unity in the face of the pandemic, yet another line of division has appeared.
The stakes in this game also include the future perspective of European integration in the long term. Once again, the question that was asked after the recent financial and migration crises returns: Given the pandemic experience, is it necessary to give the EU’s center more competencies, or should we acknowledge at last that Brussels is not yet ready for that?