29 January 2021
In computing, there is a notion of overloading - where one function does different jobs. It is a sophisticated tool - error-prone in the wrong hands. The EU works essentially on the same principle. But the EU's method, so successful in trade negotiations and the management of a single market, cannot be overloaded to deal with a vaccination strategy. Overloading has gone too far.
Until the Maastricht Treaty, the EU did a few things - and it did them well. Today, the EU does a lot more things badly. The vaccine procurement scandal and Ursula von der Leyen's panic-ridden reactions last week should serve as a reminder that the EU is not set up for all the things it is doing right now. Ms von der Leyen committed a grave error when she tried to trigger an emergency clause to impose border controls in Ireland. The error raises questions about her suitability for the job. But the problems with the EU's vaccine policy run deeper.
I have been arguing since the early 2000s that the EU needs a new constitutional treaty simply to cope with the multitude of tasks member states have been heaping on to the European level. The rationale for a common pandemic policy in a borderless Europe is obvious. But as we found out, it is hard to make it work. This requires a sound legal basis and institutions fit for purpose.
In the UK, vaccination procurement was branched out to a small group, the UK vaccine task force, under the leadership of a venture capitalist. The team was left in charge to pick the right vaccines and make proposals for procurement.
The EU does not work like that. The system of vaccine approval is more involved, as is the procurement policy itself. The European Commission and member states coordinate policy. There is no way the EU would make a scientific, let alone commercial bet in favour of a German vaccine and against a French one. At its heart, the EU is still a producers' cartel, one that is at its happiest when exploring compromise at a round table. But comitology - politics by committee - is not how you should run a pandemic emergency. So while there is a strong case in principle to shift vaccine policy onto the level of the EU, that case is more than outweighed by the EU's inability to do the job well.
I see a parallel with how the EU ended up mismanaging the monetary union. The eurozone is the shared responsibility of several commissioners, the Ecofin, the eurogroup, the European stability mechanism, 19 governments and various quangos set up around them. It lacks the legal and institutional ingredients of an economic union: a finance minister, tax raising powers and the right to issue debt. Austerity, probably the gravest economic policy error of our time, is what happens when you leave 19 small-to-mid-sized countries on a rules-based fiscal auto-pilot.
Technically, it is always possible to find loopholes in the European treaties to increase the EU's competences. But in the long run there is a price is to be paid. The right policy response to the pandemic should have been a large fiscal stimulus, not a small structural investment fund. It is no surprise that US GDP is recovering in the shape of a V. Pandemic and economic policy are now coming together. The vaccination delays will prolong the lockdown and the recession.
What the EU's failed vaccine strategy and the monetary union have in common is legal and institutional overloading. That should, in my view, be the number one priority for the EU to address this decade. If you really care about the future of European integration, don't wave the blue flag and defend European institutions against criticism. Do not fall for the argument that treaty change is difficult, and we should seek practical alternatives instead.
Remember, if you overload it, it goes bang. Just a like badly written computer code.
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