Voice

This Is Europe’s Vaccine Rollout Going According to Plan

Member states are shirking responsibility for the system they designed—even when they’re the primary beneficiaries.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Sebastian Kurz and Charles Michel wear face masks.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and the President of the European Council Charles Michel are seen wearing face masks behind transparent protective boards in Vienna on Nov. 9, 2020. HANS PUNZ/APA/AFP via Getty Images

If anyone has recently given Europeans a good glimpse of how the European Union functions—or not—it is Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

On March 12, the 34-year-old vehemently accused the EU of unfairly distributing vaccine doses among its 27 member states. Lashing out at the “EU bazaar,” he demanded adjustments in favor of member states that received less doses than others. Kurz took the dispute all the way to the European Council meeting in Brussels last week, taking precious time away from pressing issues on the agenda—transatlantic relations, a common vaccination “passport,” and possible vaccine export bans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly got so annoyed with Kurz that she reminded the group that vaccine contracts were signed by member states themselves “and not by some stupid bureaucrats” in Brussels.

The episode demonstrates a basic truth about the EU: even if member states are responsible for a decision in Brussels, they sometimes absolve themselves of it—although they are the system‘s primary beneficiaries.

If anyone has recently given Europeans a good glimpse of how the European Union functions—or not—it is Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

On March 12, the 34-year-old vehemently accused the EU of unfairly distributing vaccine doses among its 27 member states. Lashing out at the “EU bazaar,” he demanded adjustments in favor of member states that received less doses than others. Kurz took the dispute all the way to the European Council meeting in Brussels last week, taking precious time away from pressing issues on the agenda—transatlantic relations, a common vaccination “passport,” and possible vaccine export bans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly got so annoyed with Kurz that she reminded the group that vaccine contracts were signed by member states themselves “and not by some stupid bureaucrats” in Brussels.

The episode demonstrates a basic truth about the EU: even if member states are responsible for a decision in Brussels, they sometimes absolve themselves of it—although they are the system‘s primary beneficiaries.

Kurz, the conservative leader who many just a few years ago saw as a wunderkind who could revitalize Austrian politics and society, has had high popularity rates during most of the pandemic. Now, he faces growing opposition. Many Austrians balk at the government’s COVID-19 measures. In Vienna, people against vaccines, neo-Nazis, and others take to the streets on a regular basis. Kurz is as eager to relax COVID-19 measures as other European leaders, but he cannot; infection rates remain sky high. Kurz’s relationship with his Green coalition partner—and especially with his Green health minister—is tense at best. He’s also dealing with the delayed explosion of corruption scandals dating back to his previous government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, with even the police having recently searched the house of a close associate and minister.

This accumulated pressure may explain why Kurz started looking for a way out and began attacking Brussels, which is often a useful scapegoat for national leaders with dwindling popularity rates. But that is not an excuse for Kurz’s petulance. He knows full well that Austria has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the EU vaccine rollout.

Last summer, European leaders, including Kurz, decided they would buy vaccines together and distribute those among the 27 member states. All the leaders understood that in the global hunt for vaccines, powerful, rich countries would get them first; in the context of Europe, this would probably mean only Germany and France would qualify. Small nations like Austria would end up in the back of the queue, facing delays, steep prices, and other unfavorable conditions. This would put the EU—a bloc set up in the 1950s to prevent European countries from fighting another war—under severe political strain. To prevent this, all member states asked the European Commission to procure vaccines on their behalf. Norway and Switzerland, small non-EU states, joined the initiative. The United Kingdom turned down the invitation.

The commission quickly made a plan, which member states approved. Since health is not a European competence, national capitals kept the last word over all contracts with pharmaceutical companies. As for the vaccine distribution scheme for, they took charge of it themselves.

As soon as the first vaccine contracts were signed, a steering committee of officials from all member states started allocating them according to population size. The European Commission had no role in this.

When Kurz lashed out at this distribution system on March 12, calling it “unfair” and alluding to “secret” contracts depriving some countries of their fair share, his colleagues were stunned. Those were not casual remarks. Kurz said this during a press conference with deliberation. Austrian tabloids announced on their front pages that the chancellor was determined to secure more vaccines for Austria at a Brussels summit at March 25. It was a patriotic fight, if there ever was one.

Soon, however, reality kicked in. On Austrian radio, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Health, Ines Stilling, explained how European vaccine distribution worked. Once the commission has bought them, she said, each member state is offered its share of each brand—proportionally per population. National officials in the steering committee then decide whether they take the offered contingent or not. Some take everything they can get. Others buy 100 percent of the Pfizer doses assigned to their country but just 60 percent of AstraZeneca doses or the other way around. This decision, Stilling emphasized, is entirely national. Each capital pays the commission for vaccines they take. Vaccines they don’t want go back to the common reserve, becoming available for member states that want to buy more.

Next, Austrian journalists discovered that the deputy president of the European steering committee was none other than Clemens Martin Auer, the national COVID-19 coordinator in Stilling’s ministry. Soon, he was interviewed too.

Auer explained that indeed, on behalf of his country, he had decided not to buy Austria’s full contingent of BioNTech vaccines at the time they were offered last year. He had only taken three quarters of it. By contrast, he bought all the AstraZeneca doses offered. At the time, he did not know, of course, that this brand would later renege on its promised EU deliveries. Instead of 3.9 million doses, Austria ended up with 2.5 million doses. Other countries had similar problems.

This has cost Auer his role as national COVID-19 coordinator, and he has had to leave the steering committee. When leaders are weak at the knees, experts often pay the price. There were rumors in the press that Stilling would have to leave too, but she remains in office.

By then, Kurz had to acknowledge the EU itself was not at fault, but he continued the fight. He assembled the leaders of other member states who had felt disadvantaged—Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. They all wrote a letter to Brussels, demanding the fair share of vaccines that they had allegedly been deprived of.

Other European leaders were in no mood, however, to give in to Kurz’s demands. Austria had just received an advance of 100,000 extra doses from the commission for the province of Tyrol, where ski lifts had been open all winter, resulting in soaring infection rates. Kurz expressed his gratitude by flying to Israel with his Danish colleague, Mette Frederiksen, to discuss a joint project on producing vaccines against future coronavirus variants. For his EU colleagues, this was a slap in the face: They were planning to do this together, and now, on top of it all, Kurz was breaking ranks.

Moreover, statistics showed that on average, Austrians were vaccinated faster than the rest of Europe. Austria had inoculated 14.6 people per 100 residents, higher than the EU average of 13.6, according to figures compiled by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The other signatories of Kurz’s letter, however, were far behind the European average. They had bought fewer vaccines because they could not afford more. This is why, in Brussels, national representatives started drawing up plans to use (part of) an extra Pfizer contingent of 10 million doses that the commission had secured for the second trimester of 2021 to help those five countries—excluding Austria. This was an act of solidarity: All member states reneged on their share for these extra doses. Several distribution schemes were made in past weeks to organize this. All were vetoed by one state: Austria.

The frustration with Kurz’s political maneuvers at Europe’s expense is hard to exaggerate, even among the countries of the “frugal four” that fought alongside Austria last year to block the $859 billion COVID-19 recovery fund and trim the new European multiannual budget. When Kurz traveled to Berlin recently, Merkel did not find time to receive him. Several sources say this wasn’t entirely due to her full agenda.

At the March 25 summit, Kurz’s behavior was reportedly belligerent. He blocked all attempts to redistribute the extra Pfizer doses because they favored the five countries in real need and not the relatively rich Austria. After a while, the issue was left for the 27 member state ambassadors to resolve later. “We’re not going to play steering committee ourselves,” Merkel reportedly quipped during the meeting.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi confirmed afterward that “Kurz will not get any extra doses.”

Kurz, however, tweeted he was “happy, relieved and content” with the outcome: a fairer redistribution of doses in the EU to those needing it. Not a word about his country not getting additional doses.

In Brussels, many have a sense of déjà vu of the financial and refugee crises. It often happened that agreements between national leaders would unravel after a few weeks because one of them would start panicking under domestic pressure, violating the agreement by taking some unilateral measure. But each time, leaders quickly realized they couldn’t manage on their own and needed the EU to solve their problems. Then, the patching up process would begin again, with a new summit meeting and new European commitments. The cycle would restart.

At least Kurz can be credited for making clear that even when member states are behind the wheel, they can still try to score short-term political points by attacking Brussels. This is how things work in Europe.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

Tags: EU, Europe

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.