Smaller member states had more modest ambitions. They hoped that a collective strategy would ensure access to vaccine supplies that might otherwise be commandeered by the bloc’s bigger member states.
It was also supposed to address the relatively widespread anti-vaccine sentiment across Europe, popularized by the likes of the Five Star Movement and the League party in Italy. A 2018 study, for example, found that 59 percent of Western Europeans — and just 40 percent of Eastern Europeans — thought vaccines were safe, compared with a global average of 79 percent. By negotiating hard with vaccine producers, and by deploying the full firepower of the single market, European leaders wanted to show that it was they — not the pharmaceutical industry — that called the shots.
Faced with these pressures, the commission was very cautious in its approach, setting out to secure vaccines for a population of just under 448 million people with a total of 2.7 billion euros, or around $3.25 billion. By contrast Britain spent €4.3 billion, or $5.2 billion, to vaccinate a population of just over 66 million. On its own terms, the E.U.’s negotiations were successful: The E.U. paid substantially less than the United States for its doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
But frugality came at a price. When vaccine producers hit problems, Europe quickly found itself at the back of the line — while Israel, the United States and Britain, which had spent much more per capita on vaccines, enjoyed successful rollouts. Penny-pinching was a false economy: It delayed the rollout, allowing the virus to spread further and requiring more restrictions. The final cost, in human and economic terms, is hard to measure.
Few expected the vaccination campaign to go so badly. But we shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, the same dynamics lay behind other policy failures. Take the introduction of the common currency in 1999. Justified in the language of economic growth, the policy was in fact the means to achieve a variety of political ends — locking a reunified Germany into a new set of pan-European rules and weakening the power of organized labor among them. The result, as some national economies prospered while others suffered long-term stagnation, has been to severely destabilize the bloc.
Europe’s vaccine program may finally be starting to catch up. But its failures, so damaging to the bloc’s image, have their roots in the institutional structure of the E.U. itself. Until European leaders stop treating policies as an opportunity for pursuing other — often unrelated — goals, we can expect Europe to fail, and fail again.