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The EU should stop ignoring the vaccine race and try and win it

Summary:
Jan 23rd 2021“COPIUM” IS THE most useful recent addition to the political lexicon. The portmanteau of “cope” and “opium” is a metaphorical opiate that dulls the pain of defeat, according to Urban Dictionary, a useful guide to slang. In Europe a slow vaccine roll-out across the EU has left its leaders huffing gallons of the stuff. So far the EU, a club of mostly small rich countries, has vaccinated 1.4% of its population. By contrast Israel, a small rich country, has vaccinated a third of its population. Even Britain, whose health service is a punchline on the continent, has jabbed 7%. With nearly 5% of people vaccinated America, the uncaring antithesis to the EU’s self-image, has done better than anyone in the bloc.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more

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“COPIUM” IS THE most useful recent addition to the political lexicon. The portmanteau of “cope” and “opium” is a metaphorical opiate that dulls the pain of defeat, according to Urban Dictionary, a useful guide to slang. In Europe a slow vaccine roll-out across the EU has left its leaders huffing gallons of the stuff. So far the EU, a club of mostly small rich countries, has vaccinated 1.4% of its population. By contrast Israel, a small rich country, has vaccinated a third of its population. Even Britain, whose health service is a punchline on the continent, has jabbed 7%. With nearly 5% of people vaccinated America, the uncaring antithesis to the EU’s self-image, has done better than anyone in the bloc.

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The copium comes in many forms. According to one ingenious argument, the EU vaccination scheme is not any slower than other rich Western countries, it simply set off later. Others suggest that regulators in the likes of Israel, America and Britain played loose with safety standards. The most pernicious argument, however, is that rolling out the vaccine is not a competition at all.

After all, competition sits awkwardly with the EU. It was set up to stop destructive contests between governments. Mashing together the coal and steel resources of western Europe was designed to make war—the worst form of competition—impossible. Strict rules stop countries from propping up failing national champions and the outright bungs that are common among American states trying to attract new businesses. The logic of EU rules is to create a firm floor to stop countries from undermining each other.

It was in this spirit that the EU built its vaccination strategy. Rather than allow individual countries to outbid each other, vaccines would be bought collectively by the European Commission and then shared out equally, according to population. Otherwise, the contrast between Bavarian teenagers in nightclubs and Bulgarian grannies in body bags would have made the spring fight over medical equipment—when EU governments were reduced to grabbing from each other—look like a lover’s tiff. Countries going it alone again would have produced winners, but also losers, most likely in the EU’s poorer member states. Sometimes competition can be a bad thing.

But a lack of competitive drive hurt the EU elsewhere. Regulatory slowness was painted as a virtue rather than vice. Part of the reason European regulators did not rush through approval was due to overblown concerns about Europe’s band of vaccine sceptics. Now several EU leaders led by Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, are heaping pressure on the agency to hurry up and approve other vaccines. This has left the EU with the worst of both worlds, with a thorough process delaying arrival yet still being undermined by political interference.

Leaders are peculiarly relaxed that countries outside the EU are beating them at getting jabs into arms. Israel, runs one argument, is a special case. Squint at the statistics, however, and Israel becomes an archetypal EU member state. At 9m, its population is bang on the median for an EU country, as is its income per head. Yet many officials assume that Israel’s roll-out cannot be matched by countries of similar population and similar wealth. Israel may be better placed than, say, Austria, to fight a land war but there is no reason its health care cannot be matched. “There is this tendency to compare yourself with the worst,” complains one diplomat. In EU capitals there is no shame in losing to Israel as long as politicians can say they beat Belgium or Bulgaria.

For a bloc with global pretensions, this attitude is depressing. Countries that have done well with covid-19 are most aware that the world is a competitive place. Israel is surrounded by countries that want to destroy it. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have similarly tricky relationships with powerful neighbours. By contrast, governments in the EU outsource their existential worries. It is the EU’s job to devise collective solutions to how the continent deals with, say, China. Just as criticism about procurement of vaccines can be offloaded—at times unfairly—onto Brussels, so can any holes in the collective approach to Beijing.

Reluctance to compete goes deeper than the response to covid-19. Areas that are still competitive within the EU, such as corporation tax, are being squeezed towards standardisation. Ireland lures businesses with the promise of a 12.5% tax rate, less than half the German and French rates. For now, the commission is only examining ways of wiping out the most egregious uses of tax law (those companies paying far less than 12.5%). In the long term, though, this is just the beginning of an anti-competitive squeeze.

Calls for corporate “European champions” are growing, based on the dubious logic that if businesses have less competition at home, they can be stronger abroad. Chinese and American firms bulk up by growing inside large, competitive single markets. Yet in the EU, when it comes to services—about three-quarters of the EU’s economy—the single market barely exists. Where the competitive streak of European governments does come out is in their attempts to grab the levers of power, says Hans Kundnani of Chatham House, a think-tank in London. Once in command, they tilt the field in favour of their own industries and economies. European governments are most competitive when it comes to the prospect of reducing competition.

A continent of cope

If the EU is to find its competitive spirit, then a vaccination race is the perfect place. The European Commission has set a goal of jabbing 70% of its adults by summer. There is time to catch up (especially as the pandemic has provided regular, brutal reversions to the mean, when high-flying outliers are brought to ground.) There is more at stake than health. If a group including some of the world’s most successful societies cannot vaccinate their populations swiftly, then any pretensions that the EU is a potential superpower look ridiculous. Put down the copium and put up a fight.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Lessons from the vaccine race"

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