Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

For weeks, the European Union (EU) 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.

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 delivery schedule and amounts of vaccines to be delivered. 

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.” The whole document was available only on a “need to know basis.”

If all this was meant to bolster confidence, it failed. Criticism of the EU’s vaccine performance is widespread in Europe and rising. At one extreme, critics predict the end of the EU’s grand project of ever-closer political union.

A healthcare worker poses with a vial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Photo: Russell Cheyne/AFP

Others have 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 member 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 arrived on the scene, von der Leyen called the program 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, raced ahead with both vaccine procurement and delivery.

To recap: In June, European nations under pressure from Germany decided to cede 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, 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 US 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: It 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, but the offer was not taken up.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Photo: AFP

Then, Pfizer and BioNTech informed Brussels that they would initially supply far less vaccine than planned. AstraZeneca followed with an announcement that it would only deliver 31 million doses by the end of March, instead of the 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 – some 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 hogging excess amounts. The EU threatened to block exports of vaccines produced on continental soil to anywhere – and then to impose a so-called hard border on Northern Ireland to make sure nothing from the continent could be sneaked into the UK.

Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte threatened to sue Pfizer. Von der Leyen told companies to inform the EU of any vaccine exports from the continent. She also opted to place responsibility for shortages on the EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovski.

For the first time, on Friday, von der Leyen accepted some responsibility. 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 speedboat,” she said. “The EU is more like a tanker.”

An employee of a mobile vaccination team in Halberstadt holds a tray with vaccination pads from the company BioNTech/Pfizer. Photo: AFP/Matthias Bein/dpa-Zentralbild

But the problem also lies in the habitual secrecy of the European Commission, which frequently presents its decisions as faits accomplis, without outside oversight.

The AstraZeneca contract was released only after the EU Ombudsman announced a probe into the Commission’s handling of the vaccine negotiations, and took note of “the Commission’s refusal to give public access to documents concerning the purchase of vaccines against Covid-19.”

For years, the Commission has 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, a website where legal scholars publish assessments of EU activities.

“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.”

Translation: The real danger is anti-EU populism, a feature across the continent that’s encouraged not only by incompetence but by Commission secrecy. The EU should fix that.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.