Does COVID-19 Spell Disaster for the European Union?

Since its inception in 1993, the European Union has always been a lightning rod for debate. Despite the benefits of an economic union and a common currency, many European leaders have decried the organization for infringing on individual member states’ sovereignties. Most famously, this led to the “Brexit” vote in 2016, in which the United Kingdom made the decision to leave the EU entirely. As the European Union strengthens ties between member states–doing things like calling for the formation of an EU army–there has been a rising tide of dissent, EU citizens who want to weaken the ties of member states or leave the EU entirely. The argument against this dissension is that, in dealing with enormous global issues, it would be more efficient to deal with issues together as one bloc rather than as 27 separate countries. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, seems to be a challenge by which pro-EU spokespeople can prove the organization’s critics wrong. The European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) was put in charge of the vaccine rollout. In theory, a united European Union should be able to deal with a global pandemic in a much more effective way than any country could on an individual level, by presenting a united policy on containment measures and vaccine distribution. 

That’s not what happened, however. Immediately following the outbreak of the virus last year, the EU began to fracture, with individual countries instituting their own protective measures. France took control of the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). Germany banned exports of PPE, even to other members of the EU. Countries began to argue over access to supplies, hoarding them and creating individual policies, rather than presenting a united front. Each country passed its own measures on the closing of businesses, mask mandates, and social distancing. 

The problems only continued when the time came to distribute vaccines. A month ago, less than 4% of the EU’s population had had vaccine doses administered, compared to nearly 13% in the US, 19% in the UK, and 65% in Israel. Getting a vaccine appointment in the EU is immensely difficult, in part because of failures in production and transportation. On Friday, Italy blocked the export of 250,000 vaccine doses to Australia, a move France might soon follow, in order to compel the manufacturer, AstraZeneca, to provide more promised vaccines to the EU, as a part of a publicized fight over vaccine shortages with the company.

These immense failures will undoubtedly spark more debate about the future of the EU. Some pro-EU groups may argue that, far from being a negative reflection on the Union, it speaks to the need for stronger ties between the countries. The EU does not have control over the health care systems of individual member states, which explains the enormous discrepancies in the original response to the pandemic. Had the EU had a more centralized authority, it is possible their response would have been better.
Recent events, however, seem to suggest that would not have been the case. The vaccine rollout, supervised by the European Commission, was a failure. At a time when it was vital that the European Union work as one bloc to face the global catastrophe, nationalism and bureaucracy got in the way. 

The system for distributing vaccines within the EU is unstable, faulty, and in need of change. One could say the same about the European Union itself.