The sweet, sweet irony of the EU-AstraZeneca vaccine row

This week, the EU apparently signalled a major departure from its previously held dogma on free markets, trade and “vaccine nationalism”. In July 2020, the Government made headlines by announcing that it had been offered (and opted out of) membership of the European Union’s vaccine development and rollout scheme, a significant health and public-relations risk, and appointed its own body to acquire and roll vaccines out instead.

This has perhaps proven to be the best choice the Government has made in this pandemic. With vaccination rates standing at 12.5% in the UK (as of January 29th 2021), and just 2.3% in the EU (January 28th), and per capita doses acquired far higher for the UK than the EU, it is undoubtable that the UK’s vaccination scheme has been far more successful, and furthermore that the EU scheme could even be described as a disaster.

With issues of Brexit still looming in the minds of the European Commission, press and general public, this story of a massively successful British scheme paying off after opting out of its European equivalent bears obvious implications for the issue of Britain’s now-former membership of the EU as a whole.

In signing its various deals, the UK was able to grant favourable regulatory terms in exchange for priority treatment to acquire a significantly larger vaccine portfolio with various companies, including AstraZeneca (who were rightly pursuing this as a not-for-profit project). Effectively, this is something it was only able to do as a result of its independent trading status, external to EU vaccine efforts. Meanwhile, the EU spent months navigating its deal through a maze of bureaucratic paperwork.

In its first real challenge outside of the EU, Britain has passed with flying colours, leaving its sibling with a sorry “F” on the report card and many of even the most ardent Europhiles (both in Britain and on the continent) second-guessing themselves. Regarding itself as the older, more popular sibling, this has evidently been a bitter pill for the EU to swallow, who this week embarked upon several jabs (pardon the pun) both at Britain and at AstraZeneca as a private producer. The EU alleged that AstraZeneca had provided vaccines to the UK that it argued should have made their way to Europe instead, conjuring up images of a heist movie, with the PM and Health Secretary “Ocean’s-11”-ing themselves into a warehouse and heaving them away on their toes, with sterile boxes with big EU flags slapped on the side.

The truth of the matter? AstraZeneca had chosen to supply Britain’s vaccines first, with Britain having signed their deal with the pharmaceutical giant a full 3 months prior to the EU signing theirs, and having actually approved the vaccine for usage (something the EU had not actually done until this week). As an Anglo-Swedish company, AstraZeneca had also established largely separate supply chains for the UK and EU, with almost all of Britain’s production taking place in the UK, the remainder being made up from the Netherlands.

The EU denounced this as vaccine nationalism, saying that vaccine rollout should not be seen as a race (something they would almost certainly be framing it as, were they winning it), and rejected the idea that “first-come-first-served” should play a role in the modern economy – apparently not realising that this, along with price rationing, is quite definitively the basis of a free market economy. The EU apparently believed the notions of private-public partnership and free enterprise to be the most efficient method of resource allocation – unless and until they stop being the top dog, a feeling they aren’t used to and don’t like.

As a result of this apparent change in doctrine, the EU proceeded to place restrictions on vaccine exports to other nations – a list from which almost every other European nation (except Britain) was exempt – and effectively tried to stop any vaccines from reaching Northern Ireland, with whom trade had been a bone of contention in the Brexit negotiations. It was soon pointed out by even the EU’s closest supporters that these choices had no legitimate basis beyond the EU being sore, and were denounced by various health officials as irresponsible.

In short, because the EU has found a deeply embarrassing issue, which it cannot bully or muscle its way out of, it has seen fit to flip-flop on its previously “cherished” principles of free enterprise and multi-lateralism. We must ask ourselves, were the boot on the other foot, had it been Britain struggling to vaccinate its citizens, would the EU, kindly and magnanimously, be pooling its resources after the UK opted out of its scheme? Would the EU be calling for a change in competitive rhetoric, were it they who were winning this race? If this situation had played into their hands, would the EU be taking the same approach?

The answer to all three of these questions is a hard NO. And this does not mean that the EU is evil – simply that they aren’t the utilitarian, omni-benevolent, philosopher-king saints that many have previously seen them to be. There is a cynical game being played, and the EU is just as much a participant as the UK.

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