From the slow speed of vaccinations across the EU, to its accidental threat of enforcing a hard border on the island of Ireland as part of its new vaccine export transparency mechanism, the European Commission is defending itself from all sides.
What started with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s universally celebrated announcement that the Commission had centrally procured more than 2.3 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to have everyone in the Union vaccinated by the end of the summer, within weeks, turned into an evolving crisis and blame game for the Commission, its President and the different Member States.
In the past weeks, the Commission’s front-facing personas tasked with the vaccination effort, President von der Leyen and Health Commissioner Kyriakides, spent their time fending off criticism that the Commission’s orders to pharma companies had been too little, too late leaving national governments unable to vaccinate their populations.
While it is indeed true that doses continue to be in short supply for the moment, the Commission continues to stress that its strategy had always anticipated short supply for the first months while manufacturers ramped up capacities from the second quarter onwards. In fact, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s (ECDC) vaccine live tracker, Member States have so far used 75% of the doses they have received. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, has so far used less than 27% of its stock according to the tracker.
Likewise, in the past weeks the Commission faced criticism from people such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, or Irish MEP Billy Kelleher over the EU not handing out emergency authorisations to newly developed vaccines but insisting on the European Medicines Agency undertaking its regular conditional authorisation mechanism. While this may, of course, speed up the regulatory process, this week’s different approaches taken towards the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for elderly people highlights exactly why EU Heads of State and Government decided last year to take the full authorisation route.
In fact, Chancellor Kurz, who had been one of the more forceful in putting pressure on the EMA to speed up the process in recent weeks, this week accepted recommendations from his vaccination board that the vaccine should only be used for those under 65 years old in Austria.
Meanwhile, while the Commission was able to swat away many of complaints coming from national capitals relatively unscathed, its weeklong battle with AstraZeneca over the latter’s announcement that it would only be able to supply some 25% of contractually obliged doses to the EU in the first quarter, as well as the fallout of the Commission’s rushed export transparency mechanism and accidental almost triggering of Article 16 of the post-Brexit agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol were significant own-goals for the Commission. The President is also already under close scrutiny from (national) media, governments and MEPs for her often “insular” and centralised decision-making processes.