The pandemic has become the greatest show on earth, ie a circus. The main powers on the planet are taking to the ring with their best acts and a common goal. They want the tragedy to be forgotten as soon as possible, to gather public support, and to give them hope for a better future.
Despite an initial setback as the epicentre of the outbreak, the Chinese have put on a contortionist performance combining drastic measures and economic effectiveness. This year they will grow at a pre-pandemic rate of 8.4 per cent, according to the IMF.
Meanwhile, the United States initially went for a lion show. The lion [Covid-19] ate the first tamer, Donald Trump, who racked up staggering death tolls. However, his replacement, Joe Biden, has restored the magic with a trillion-dollar stimulus plan. So far, the country has received three stimulus packages since the start of the crisis. In addition, Biden’s ambitious vaccination plan means that the entire adult population will be immunised by next month.
The UK has been the surprise in this pandemic circus. Boris Johnson’s knife-throwing performance is fascinating. After the first few flying daggers threatened a tragedy, including a disastrous referendum and a last-minute Brexit, now 37 out of every 100 Britons have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
What about Europe? The old continent acts as the slapstick clown. Laughing while crying on the inside. Everything is going wrong. Europe constantly stumbles and lags behind while the other countries are already catching a glimpse of the end of the tragedy.
Let’s recap. Its vaccination campaign is on a cliff edge. Following the AstraZeneca fiasco and Janssen’s single-dose quarantine, Europe is pinning its entire future on Pfizer’s continued compliance with its contracts. The economy is also failing to take off, and the recovery funds, its silver bullet, remain cryogenically frozen, awaiting the approval of the German Constitutional Court. Assuming all goes well, the first advance payments will reach the countries that do their “homework” in July, more than a year after they were approved.
If the beginning of the pandemic was a failure and the second wave a new disappointment, this final stretch looks to be going the same way.
Few people understand the peculiar plumbing of the European Union as well as the Dutch intellectual Luuk van Middelar. He is a former adviser to Herman van Rompuy, the first president of the European Council. “The vaccination fiasco is yet another example of the failure of the EU machinery”, he laments. “It is based on rules that adapt very slowly to the world of events, where it is not only the rule of law or technocratic expertise that governs but also power and a language of persuasion. The recent humiliations and missteps of European diplomacy are proof of this”, he complains.
The embarrassments to which Van Middelar alludes are a reflection of the precarious position Europe currently finds itself in. Too much bureaucracy, not quick enough to react. A lot of acquired rights, but a mortal ignorance of international relations. Unity on paper, but little cooperation when things get complicated.
“If you want Europe to be taken seriously you need an army of your own” — Anne Applebaum
The latest slap in the face of the European clown was in Turkey and came with an open hand. There, its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, humiliated Ursula von der Leyen, leader of the European Commission, by leaving her without a chair. Meanwhile, von der Leyen’s alleged ally and president of the European Council, Charles Michel, acted with passivity. Before that, Josep Borrell, the leader of European diplomacy, was locked up during his visit to Moscow, and China has been imposing disproportionate sanctions against MEPs or EU textile companies when someone dares to insult their human rights. “The answer is simple: the leaders of the four big countries (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) don’t want Europe to be a geopolitical power”, says Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose book, Twilight of Democracy, is being published in Spanish next month. “If they wanted to, they would give the job of top EU representation to people with real experience in dealing with countries like China and Russia. If Europe wants to be taken seriously, it needs strong security and defence policies, including its own army.”
Marlene Wind is the director of the Centre for European Politics in Copenhagen. She believes it is time for Europe to overcome its inferiority complex with autocrats. “Why do we still bow down to them?” asks this political scientist. “True, in some cases we need them, but I think we become an international joke when we cannot, at the very least, insist on basic issues like human rights or gender equality in our dealings with these leaders.”
It is no longer just that the main rivals are playing hardball, or even dirty. Middle-ranking powers are challenging Europe. One day, the continent is mocked by Boris Johnson the following day by Vladimir Putin. The next day, AstraZeneca throws a cake in its face, delaying its vaccine deliveries to Europeans while strictly adhering to its contracts with third countries.
“Europe is playing with one hand tied behind its back, and the rest of its opponents know all the dirty tricks of politics”, comments José Ignacio Torreblanca on the phone, analyst and director in Madrid of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “Sometimes Europe looks like a herbivorous animal that lives surrounded by carnivores.”
When the pandemic began, the European Union’s strategy was distinctively moderate. It neither opted for China’s radical lockdowns, which quickly freed it from the pandemic, nor for the American boldness of keeping an open economy to limit damages. In the end, the region has reaped the worst results in terms of both contagion and economic growth. It’s like it still hasn’t learned how to interpret the pandemic codes one year on.
“Europe is playing with one hand tied behind its back, and the rest of its opponents know all the dirty tricks of politics” — José Ignacio Torreblanca
“The European Commission has failed to adapt to a war economy situation”, criticises Van Middelar. “Their working system runs well in peace times, but for a pandemic like this, the laws of power apply, of a state that can ensure production or ban exports. This is not a price mechanism!”
Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, agrees with this analysis in his search for the causes of the European failure. In his opinion, European officials were not only risk-averse. They were also wrong to identify the dangers, such as being found to pay too much for vaccines or choosing the wrong formula. So they minimised these risks by delaying the procurement process, haggling over prices and refusing to grant liability waivers”, he wrote recently in The New York Times. “They seemed far less worried about the risk that many Europeans might get sick or die because the vaccine rollout was too slow.”
“The European Commission has failed to adapt to a war economy” — Luuk Van Middelar
Van Middelar points out that the EU bureaucracy is partly to blame for this “disaster”, but not completely. After all, the countries themselves are responsible for immunisation. He uses the Netherlands as an example. There, vaccinations are carried out as if this planetary emergency were a civil service job. From Monday to Friday, from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon. Meanwhile, in Israel, a country that is always on pre-war alert, the service operates 24 hours a day, weekends included.
“This has to do with Europeans’ lack of ability to act, to improvise”, says the historian and philosopher. “We’ve enjoyed peace for three generations, and that has made us lose the ability to mobilise the whole of society, the whole political system, for any exceptional purpose, whether it’s winning a war or vaccinating 80 per cent of its population”, Van Middelar explains.
This lack of energy, common to an ageing society, is the root cause of many of Europe’s burdens. The alliance also has the disadvantage of not being able to compete politically with the other great powers due to its lack of unity. Consisting of 27 different sensibilities, the European Union only seems united if things do not get complicated. Its member states are not willing to take more steps that imply losing sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the US seemed to be the country that had the hardest time, due to its polarisation and a harsh electoral hangover. But now, they seem to be making steady progress in its recovery. China maintains its tough social structure and underpins its foreign policy by sending vaccines to several middle and low-income countries to strengthen trade ties. However, its vaccination figures at home are still deficient.
Despite harmony being a central feature of the design of its vaccination plan, Europe is suffering a severe stress test. Several eastern European countries have already broken their promises and are in search of Russian and Chinese vaccines. This doesn’t seem important, as long as the big nations don’t move. The key is whether Berlin will openly negotiate with Moscow and make the leap. If this happens, it will open up a door.
“The most disastrous humiliation for Europe would be if countries rushed to buy these vaccines without them first being approved by the European Medicines Agency. That would repeat the mistakes of the first wave by setting a return to a ‘free-for-all’ policy”, explains ECFR’s Torreblanca. “It would be as hard a blow to the EU’s self-esteem as the photo in March of the arrival of Russian doctors at Rome’s airport, which gave the impression of total collapse”, the expert adds.
Such uncertainties merely solidify the famous quote by the former Belgian minister Mark Eyskens in Europe’s collective memory. He described Europe as “an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm”. The problem is that the giant is tottering, the dwarf is not growing, and the worm is not even a larva. It is for this reason that the events of the last three months are hurting so much.
“Europe’s values are its great power” — Marlene Wind
But it’s not all bad. Europe learns from its slaps in the face, especially the external ones. Torreblanca says that Europe “can’t allow itself to be cornered” because it has been “analysing its vulnerabilities in strategic sectors in order to protect itself. Maybe these ‘language of power’ trials have failed, but at the same time they work as a stimulus to improve and achieve the longed-for strategic autonomy”, he stresses.
The first challenge is to overcome the pandemic and emerge from the economic crisis sooner rather than later and without the mistakes made in the Great Recession, which unnecessarily prolonged the agony of several countries. Later on, Europe will face other colossal challenges in which it must stand firm compared to other powers. It will have to deal with energy dependency, with the gas tap being turned off in Moscow, refugees in Turkey, and 5G tensions with China, among other issues.
“Europe stands for a high moral concept. It has values that many of its rivals cannot offer their citizens”, says the director of the Centre for European Politics, Marlene Wind. She has some optimism. “European values are its great power. The problem is that we haven’t yet understood it, let alone used it on the global stage.”
On 14 March 2020, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared a state of emergency. While lockdown lasted, there was a circus tent stranded for months in Punta Umbría, in the southern province of Huelva. Today it’s on the road again with its artists and its clowns. Its name is Circo Europa.