Every man for himself?

The EU was partly built to check its members’ worst instincts in dealing with each other. But that only holds within its ranks

By Hofphotograph: Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The world’s scientists have worked together to find ways to fight Covid-19. Its governments have proven less collaborative so far. From backbiting over the quality of each other’s regulators to warnings of a moral failure by the developed world in the scramble for vaccines, fraternity seems in short supply. It’s dispiriting — but, at the risk of proving a cynic, unsurprising.

So I can’t say the EU’s claims that Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines currently intended for British use should be diverted surprise me much. Those claims seem to carry little weight: at the time of writing, it seems the UK was, for once, ahead of the game. Having signed a UK contract early, AstraZeneca had time to iron out problems in its supply chains. The EU dithered before signing on the dotted line, AstraZeneca had less time to deal with its version of the same problems, and here we are.

From an EU perspective, this is a row with AstraZeneca: the fact that UK supply is involved is secondary. But you have to be a pretty monomaniacal sort of pro-European not to find the 27-country version of ‘vaccine nationalism’ highly unattractive. I wish we hadn’t left the EU. I also have little sympathy for the idea that Britons should want for vaccines due to our neighbours’ logistical failures. I profoundly hope it doesn’t come to that.

But many of the EU’s critics (who have lots of justice on their side here) miss the point, even as they point their fingers. When it comes to vaccine nationalism specifically, the EU displaying its own version isn’t the striking thing. We would behave no better in their shoes. The striking thing is the extent to which it’s curbed it between member states.

Intra-European solidarity has frayed a bit, and is fraying further. Germany’s bilateral deals have ruffled feathers, some countries are buying up spares, and irritation with the Commission is mounting. The EU has never completely lived up to its aspirations. Nonetheless, the idea behind a joint programme was to rein in the beggar-thy-neighbour tendency, use EU purchasing power and support poorer as well as richer member states. Only an ideologue would hold the end result up as a shining success, but some pooling and sharing did result.

The furore says something both good and bad about the EU. Its institutions and rules were built to keep nation-states’ worst impulses in check. From trying to take state competition over coal and steel out of commission onwards, an awareness and a fear of what untrammelled nation-states could do played a vital part in building Europe. The idealistic element of the European project is real. But it’s idealism for the fear-haunted, not the starry-eyed.

The creation of a single market reflects that view of the state. The EU’s members don’t trust each other out of a warm, fuzzy sense of Europeanness. They trust each other, to a point, because rules exist to keep them all in line and because institutions have a reasonable ability to make sure they’re being stuck to at least tolerably well. Has that extended to a wider definition of ‘us’ than a nation-state outside the club can manage? Yes, but there are limits.

Most of those rules and institutions don’t exist when the EU looks beyond its borders. It tends to try to replicate them, of course — partly out of self-interest, partly out of self-belief, and partly because what you are shapes what you do. The European Economic Area is one of the most radical examples of regulatory-Europe-for-export; the Northern Ireland Protocol is another. But without them, it doesn’t behave all that much better than a nation-state when it has the power and when the chips are down.

No one should be surprised to find that out. The EU has found ways to make the definition of ‘us’ extend beyond the nation up to a point — but only up to a point, and overwhelmingly within its borders. It doesn’t just happen outside them. Solidarity between nations doesn’t come easily. If it were as easy as all that, why was Europe ever built?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 January 2021.

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