Updated: Aug 24
Thursday 28th of January 2021, Jacob Taylor
The Coronavirus pandemic has put the world’s greatest peace project to the test, pulling the European Union apart. The ultimate liberal question in international relations is simple: can states cooperate, setting aside zero-sum calculations, to help the international community as a whole?
The powerhouse of the European project, both politically and economically, is Germany. Its economy enables it to prop up most of the bloc, and its political stability enables it to be a steady hand at the rudder of the European project. However, such power comes with great responsibility, as the Marvel proverb says, and so when Germany decides to break with conventions and norms, the whole of the continent is shaken.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Germany decided to block the export of medical equipment (masks in particular) to its neighbouring states of Austria and Switzerland. In doing so, it broke many of the norms within the European Union, in which countries were supposed to work together in order to solve issues, rather than fragmenting and thereby weakening a concerted, European response to disasters. Through this lens, nation-state activities are absorbed into the collective action made possible by the European Union and its institutions. However, when the crisis loomed, the German authorities caved, worrying about their own supplies and not about the situation of Europe as a whole.
Recently, however (and perhaps more dangerously) a government leak to the normally respectable Handelsblatt newspaper, which is the German equivalent of the Financial Times, stated that the UK-made AstraZeneca vaccine was only 8% effective among the 65+ age category. The Handelsblatt’s website led with the story for most of 26th January, its journalists catching a lot of flack in the process. The paper was publicly rebuked by the German government, who denied the statistic, but the Handelsblatt responded with more statements from an anonymous source within the government itself. Although it was later clarified that someone within that supply chain of information had misread the information on the vaccine, this led to vast condemnation from many within both journalism and politics because the reckless actions of the paper endangered the vaccination efforts of all countries.
All of this came during the crisis in the European Union’s centralised vaccination efforts, in which they have been unable to properly find the right number of vaccines for all the people within the European Union. While Pfizer is situated within the EU, its vaccine is less useful (because of the temperature it has to be kept at) than the British-made AstraZeneca and one company cannot supply the whole country successfully. The EU has been behind other nations in rolling out their vaccine simply because of the supply issues that arise when trying to organise vaccine allocation for an entire continent.
The EU has therefore been trying to negotiate a better deal with AstraZeneca and get more of the scarce number of vaccines. Through this, the vaccines themselves have become weaponised as the EU stated it would no longer allow Pfizer to ship its vaccines to Britain if the relationship between the bloc and the UK were to worsen.
The reporting by the Handelsblatt contributes to this worsening relationship as tensions rise concerning the effects of Brexit, and in doing so, it threatens the global response to Coronavirus.
However, the debacle highlights an apparent tendency within German government circles, who thought it would be appropriate to cast doubt on the ability of the AstraZeneca vaccine to protect against Coronavirus, which would harm confidence in the UK’s vaccine. It further shows that upper-level members of the EU are frustrated at the roll-out of their own vaccinations, and the issues from AstraZeneca.
Since the Brexit vote, it appeared as though the Europeans pitied the UK as it tried to untangle itself from the European institutions, however, now it seems that their view of the UK has greatly worsened as the stress of the COVID situation on the continent worsens. As the relationship worsens, we could see further tensions rise. Perhaps the Germans learnt their lesson from the beginning of the crisis, that single nation-state action is not desirable, which led to a switch within the thinking of those in power in Germany, that a robust European policy is necessary, leaving behind an internationalist, liberal perspective, for a much more regionalist, realist perspective, in which the power of the German state is turned to the defence of European interests.
Germany is the de facto leader of the European Union and so where the Germans lead, the rest of the continent is almost sure to follow. Countries such as the Netherlands, with historically strong ties to the UK, may find it more difficult to maintain relationships with their old colonial rival and the UK itself might find itself increasingly lonely, as the Biden-led USA continues to give Britain the cold shoulder, and a more fiercely inward-looking, pro-European EU, leaving Britain stuck without friends. In the midst of a crisis many norms have fallen out of fashion, and the idea of “we’re all in this together” is being stretched to breaking point. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel of this COVID crisis but the tangle of international relations post-COVID may be more hostile to Britain than we currently realise. A liberal, internationalist, free-trading UK may not find many friends in a world that is thinking in realist terms.
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