January 23, 2021
"C.OPIUM ”is the most useful addition to the political lexicon. The portmanteau of “Cope” and “Opium” is a metaphorical opiate that alleviates the pain of defeat, according to Urban Dictionary, a useful guide to slang. In Europe, a slow roll-out of vaccines across the EU has led leaders to piss off gallons of them. So far, the EU, an association of mostly small rich countries, has vaccinated 1.4% of its population. In contrast, Israel, a small rich country, vaccinated a third of its population. Even the UK, whose health service is a punch line on the continent, bumped 7%. With nearly 5% of people vaccinated in America, the indifferent contrast to the EU's self-image has developed better than anyone else in the bloc.
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The copium comes in many forms. According to a brilliant argument, the EU vaccination system is not slower than other rich Western countries, it just starts later. Others suggest that regulators like Israel, America, and the UK played loose with safety standards. The most damaging argument, however, is that the launch of the vaccine is not a competition at all.
After all, competition with the EU is unpleasant. It was set up to stop destructive competition between governments. Merging the coal and steel resources of Western Europe should make war – the worst form of competition – impossible. Strict rules prevent countries from sustaining failing national masters and the downright rungs that are common among American states to attract new businesses. The logic of EU rules is to create solid ground to prevent countries from undermining each other.
With this in mind, the EU has developed its vaccination strategy. Instead of allowing individual countries to outbid each other, vaccines would be bought jointly by the European Commission and then distributed evenly across the population. Otherwise, the contrast between Bavarian teenagers in nightclubs and Bulgarian grannies in body bags would have made the spring fight over medical devices – when EU governments were reduced to packing each other – like a lovers' party. Countries doing it alone again would have produced winners but also losers, most likely in the poorer EU member states. Sometimes competition can be a bad thing.
However, a lack of competitiveness has harmed the EU elsewhere. Regulatory slowness was painted as a virtue rather than a vice. Part of the reason the European regulators didn't rush through approval was due to exaggerated concerns about the European group of vaccine skeptics. Now several EU politicians, led by Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, are putting pressure on the agency to hurry up and allow other vaccines. This has left the EU with the worst of both worlds, with a thorough process delaying arrival and yet undermining it by political interference.
Heads of State and Government are particularly relaxed that countries outside the EU are beating them to get blown weapons. Israel, one argument argues, is a special case. However, look at the statistics and Israel will become an archetypal EU member state. At 9 million, the population is in the median of an EU country, as is the per capita income. However, many officials assume that the introduction of Israel cannot be achieved by countries with similar populations and wealth. Israel may be better placed than Austria, for example, to wage a land war, but there is no reason why its health care is not comparable. "There is a tendency to compare yourself to the worst," complains one diplomat. In EU capitals, there is no shame in losing to Israel as long as politicians can say they are beating Belgium or Bulgaria.
This attitude is depressing for a block with global claims. Countries that did well on covid-19 are most aware that the world is a competitive place. Israel is surrounded by countries that want to destroy it. Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have similarly difficult relationships with powerful neighbors. In contrast, governments in the EU are outsourcing their existential concerns. It is the task of the EU to develop collective solutions for how the continent deals with China, for example. Just as criticism of vaccine procurement can – sometimes wrongly – be shifted to Brussels, gaps can also arise in the collective approach for Beijing.
The reluctance to compete goes deeper than the reaction to covid-19. Areas that are still competitive within the EU, such as corporate tax, are being pushed towards standardization. Ireland lures companies with the promise of a tax rate of 12.5%, less than half the German and French tax rates. For now, the Commission is only looking into ways to root out the most egregious uses of tax law (companies paying well below 12.5%). In the long run, however, this is just the beginning of anti-competitive pressures.
The demand for “European champions” by companies is growing, based on the dubious logic that companies that have less competition domestically can be stronger abroad. Chinese and American companies grow in large, highly competitive domestic markets. However, there is hardly a single market for services in the EU – around three quarters of the EU economy. The competitive streak of European governments is evident in their attempts to seize the levers of power, says Hans Kundnani of Chatham House, a think tank in London. Once in command, they tend the field in favor of their own industries and economies. European governments are most competitive when it comes to the prospect of reducing competition.
A continent to cope with
If the EU is to find its competitive spirit, a vaccination race is the perfect place. The European Commission has set a goal of bumping 70% of its adults by summer. There is time to catch up (especially since the pandemic has produced regular, brutal reversals of the mean as high-flying outliers are brought to the ground). It's about more than health. If a group that includes some of the most successful societies in the world cannot vaccinate its people quickly, then any claim that the EU is a potential superpower is ridiculous. Put down the copium and fight.■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading "Lessons from the vaccine race".
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