Updated: September 16, 2021 1:04:04 pm
Written By Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk
As Europeans try to lock in gains made by inoculation campaigns, the European Union on Wednesday pledged to reinforce its preparedness for future health crises and to increase coronavirus vaccine donations to low- and middle-income countries.
In her annual speech on the state of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, lauded the success in vaccinating its citizens after a shaky start. But she called global vaccinations the bloc’s most urgent priority, warning that wide discrepancies between rich and developing nations could lead to a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
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“With less than 1% of global doses administered in low-income countries, the scale of injustice and the level of urgency are obvious,” von der Leyen said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday.
In a wide-ranging speech, von der Leyen addressed issues including the climate emergency, the crisis in Afghanistan, economic recovery and technological competition, praising the European Union’s successes during the pandemic while acknowledging its inconsistencies and imperfections.
Von der Leyen’s confident tone, switching between English, French and German, was a sharp contrast with her speech last year, when new COVID-19 cases were ravaging the bloc and vaccines were months away.
“Last year, she was in a crisis mode,” said Camino Mortera-Martínez, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a think tank in Brussels. “This year, she said we need to look forward.”
Despite early missteps and criticism of the process of vaccine procurement by the European Commission, which negotiated doses on behalf of the 27 EU countries, more than 70% of the adult population of the bloc has now been fully vaccinated.
That has placed the European Union among the world’s leaders in vaccinations, von der Leyen said, though she conceded that it faced wide discrepancies across the bloc, as several Eastern European countries have lagged far behind.
To prepare for any future pandemic, she announced the creation of a new biomedical agency, the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, which she said would aim to “make sure that no virus will ever turn a local epidemic again into a global pandemic.”
It was unclear how the agency would work in practice, however, as health policy remains a prerogative of national governments, and the European Commission has had limited leverage in the past. The bloc also has two existing health agencies, the European Medicines Agency and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Von der Leyen also spoke of how Europe had been disappointed with the chaotic evacuation of U.S. and European troops from Afghanistan, calling it a symptom of an era marked by “regional rivalries and major powers refocusing their attention toward each other.”
The Afghanistan failure raised “troubling questions” for NATO, she added, arguing that Europe should act faster to develop a long-proposed “European defense union,” with improved coordination of forces and more intelligence-sharing among member states, which have resisted sharing sensitive data in the past.
Von der Leyen also announced an EU defense summit next year, during the six-month French presidency of the bloc that begins in January, and a joint declaration with NATO before the end of the year. A Europe better able to defend itself has been a constant theme of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who is up for reelection in April.
Von der Leyen also repeated earlier vows that the European Union would increase humanitarian aid for Afghanistan by 100 million euros, about $118 million, and said that it would be part of a broader support package for the country that would combine varied European efforts.
She did not mention widespread European fears of a new migration crisis, only saying that the bloc would “continue supporting Afghans in neighboring countries,” presumably to encourage them to remain there.
Von der Leyen also said that while a 750 billion euro coronavirus recovery fund adopted last year allowed the eurozone area to outpace the United States and China in terms of growth in the last quarter, Europe needed to do more to secure its economic future. For instance, she said that the bloc needed to reduce its dependency on semiconductors, which are mostly made in Asia, and she proposed a European Chips Act to coordinate production and supply for strategic as well as commercial reasons.
Focusing on the need for more solidarity among member countries, von der Leyen waited until the end of her speech to mention the contentious issue of the respect for the rule of law. The sensitive subject has pitted the European Commission against Poland and Hungary over judiciary independence, rights for minorities and media freedom.
But she did not single out those eastern nations, speaking instead of “worrying developments in certain member states.” The bloc’s administration has toughened its position this month, asking the top EU court to impose financial sanctions on Poland.
Von der Leyen emphasized the importance of dialogue on thorny issues with member states, which some critics think is too complacent a position, given the stakes.
“This commission has been clear that Europe should defend its values, but more looking outward than inward, which I find problematic,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a policy analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Center. “That can come across as hypocritical.”
And even on vaccines, EU nations have so far fallen short on their promises to help inoculate poorer nations. Although von der Leyen pledged to deliver an extra 200 million doses by mid-2022, in addition to 250 million doses already promised by the end of the year, the bloc’s countries had only donated 21 million doses as of early September, according to Commission figures.
The bloc has instead focused on exporting vaccines — around 700 million — at a time when most nations that produced shots were hoarding them. Yet most of those doses have been sent to richer nations, such as Britain, Japan and South Korea.
“The gap between the EU’s beautiful rhetoric about stopping the COVID-19 pandemic and its actions is embarrassingly wide,” said Dr. Christos Christou, international president of Doctors Without Borders.
Guntram Wolff, the head of Bruegel, a Brussels-based research institution, said that despite good intentions, there were significant logistical challenges involved in getting doses into arms in poorer countries.
“The same story holds all over the world: No one is safe until everyone is safe,” he said. “In a way, it doesn’t matter if it is in Chad or in Bulgaria.”
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