German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been singled out for serious criticism for the slow pace of vaccination in Germany and within other European Union member states. In the past few days, it had transpired that in the summer of 2020 she had personally intervened against the pre-ordering of a large batch of vaccines for Germany in favor of a common European approach that, in view of the protracted economic slump, had cost billions of euros and had resulted in significant delays in the purchase of vaccines needed for the population.
In the summer of 2020, there was an initiative from the health ministers of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to pre-order a large quantity of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNtech that were developed in Germany and were scheduled to be manufactured in Belgium. According to documents published by the Bild newspaper, Merkel, at the start of Germany’s EU presidency, had personally intervened to block the initiative in order to show her solidarity and not to erode the authority of European institutions in tackling the coronavirus crisis. This had forced the four health ministers to backtrack on their plans and to write an apologetic letter to the Commission saying, “We believe that it is of utmost importance to have a common joint and single approach towards the various pharmaceutical companies… So we deem it very useful if the Commission takes the lead in this process.”
The four ministers have reserved 400 million vaccines from Astra-Zeneca, but after handing over the negotiations to the Commission, the process had become so protracted that it gave an opportunity for the United Kingdom and United States to secure large doses for their own citizens.
Criticism of the Commission’s failure had come from all directions, even Ursula von der Leyen’s predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker had expressed his dismay, saying that the EU had reacted very “weakly”. Yet, he also blamed the debacle on the fact that EU member states still retain their powers in the area of healthcare, which is not an unexpected remark from the former Commission president, who is regarded as a vocal advocate of a federal Europe. Others have called for Merkel’s resignation, remarkingthat “once again, the chancellor reveals herself as one overwhelmed at the crucial moment”.
The entire episode is a major embarrassment for those calling for stronger European integration and for handing over national competences to Brussels. Some nation-states, such as Israel, the US or the UK, all led by leaders often ridiculed for their nation-first attitudes, have proved to be more effective and faster in reacting to the crisis, with their vaccination programs far outpacing that of the EU’s. Only 2 million Germans, out of a population of 84 million, are expected to be vaccinated by the end of January, which is exponentially less than the proportion in some independent countries outside of the EU.
In order to inflate the number of those who have participated in the inoculation, German health minister Jens Spahn has reportedly proposed to increase the time between the two portions that are necessary for the medication to take effect, potentially endangering the effectiveness of the vaccination. He was also confident enough to shrug off any criticism, claiming in a television interview that “things are going exactly as it was planned”.
The authority of Merkel’s protégé, Ursula von Der Leyen, who is ultimately responsible for the decisions and success of the Commission, has also been tarnished by the delays. Von der Leyen, who, as the former German defense minister, is credited with the near destruction of the Bundeswehr by many, has proved to be indecisive in handling the unprecedented health crisis. Her Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides had only succeeded in pre-ordering 300 million doses from Biontech and Pfizer, as the EU had already exhausted its €2.7 billion budget set aside for the handling of the coronavirus crisis. Thus, the funds remaining for this essential medication have proven to be woefully insufficient.
The lack of funds for saving lives of European citizens comes at a time when Angela Merkel had announced the sum of €1 billion for what the German government calls a “fight against right-wing radicalism” that would effectively mean a transfer of large amounts of taxpayer money to NGOs or political research organizations aligned with the progressive liberal outlook of her government. Furthermore, to silence any possible criticism of her failure to tackle the vaccine crisis, her allies have labeled all attempts to deal with the issue outside the remit of the Brussels bureaucracy as a “vaccination nationalism”.
This is in line with the attitude of the Merkel government since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when critics were branded as “right-wing” and public debates has effectively been muffled by the German media closing ranks behind the Merkel government. At the first signs of the epidemic in China, the disease was dismissed as harmless and government officials claimed to be well-prepared for its arrival. They blamed the “right” for causing alarm among the population.
However, as far as German election results are concerned, this strategy had worked for years in distracting from the Merkel government’s failures.