Vaccine diplomacy: triggering internal and external divisions in Central-Eastern Europe

By Myriam Marino

One year after the outburst of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Member States of the European Union are managing the most extensive vaccination campaign of all time. If differences regarding the rendition and administration of campaigns between Western and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were expected, the current situation displays divergencies and peculiarities to be identified nationally, rather than regionally. Most importantly, in comparison with the negotiations at the origins of the EU vaccination strategy, Central-Eastern countries have taken a different path, along with the ever-increasing influence of Russia and China in the region.

The more recent wave of the virus has proved to be the most intense for CEE countries and, particularly, for the Visegrád Four members, reporting the highest death rates in Europe. Within this region, political actors have oftentimes taken over the reins of the national emergency, not rarely circumventing warnings and advice coming from the scientific community. Decisions to opt for an – often premature – easing of Covid-19 restrictions were taken by governments to avoid potential social and political reactions. A demonstrative example is the Czech Republic, where Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman were in regular disagreement with scientific authorities, leading to the resignation of the health minister Jan Blatný. A new minister was, therefore, designated last April, the third since September 2020. This time, frictions between political and scientific exponents started regarding the Russian-produced Sputnik V vaccine. More specifically, national health experts had expressed skeptical opinions about the use of the Russian jab before its approval by the authorities of the European Medicines Agency.

Nonetheless, the Czech Republic was the only one among several states in the Central-Eastern European region that began looking with strong interest at the Russian vaccine. Long and delayed procedures of approval and shipment, as well as growing doubts over the effectiveness and safety of EU-passed vaccines, have persuaded a number of Member States to shift their national vaccination strategies. To mention another case, already in early March 2021, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda had discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping the purchase of the Chinese-produced vaccine, to find alternatives to the EU-backed jabs. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that several governments that have opted and are opting for non-EMA-approved vaccines still highly profit from the overall common recovery strategy of the European Union.

In spite of the diffused intention to introduce Sputnik V as the protagonist of many national vaccination campaigns, some political actors still displayed cautious stances towards it. At the end of April, the Czech medicines regulator was unable to approve the Russian jab, due to anomalies in the supplied and analyzed pieces. An analogous event had already taken place in Slovakia. Moreover, the Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič had initiated, in early March, the purchase of 2 million doses of the Sputnik V without prior internal political and scientific consultation. This resulted in a national political crisis and in the Prime Minister’s resignation on March 29th.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán has firmly proceeded with the vaccination campaign. The Government has based its vaccination strategy almost completely on the Chinese and Russian jabs. PM Orbán released images of his own vaccination with the Sinopharm Chinese jab on social networks, while proudly promoting Hungary’s initiative to overlook EU-approved vaccines, over the last months. On the other hand, opposition parties were accused by the Government of discouraging the national vaccination campaign, as political opponents were displaying wary stances towards unapproved vaccines. All things considered, Hungary, currently figures as the second country in the EU with the highest percentage of people who have been inoculated with at least one dose of the jab, with 47.1% of the population (data of May 14th). 

While Central-Eastern Europe has become a potential setting for Russia and China to exercise soft power through vaccine diplomacy, questions arise over the issue of the Covid travel pass. An agreement was achieved on the 21st of May, stating that the “EU Digital COVID certificate” will be issued only to people vaccinated with jabs approved by the EMA. This decision could exacerbate existing divisions, not only at the European Union level, but at international levels, and create further and more intense controversies. Indeed, the influence extended potentially goes well beyond vaccine provision. Concerns arise, therefore, regarding the role of vaccine-producers and exporters in Western Balkan countries, as well, since, as written in a joint letter of nine EU foreign ministers from last March, “other actors are ready to step in the regional affairs, often at our expense”. 

Geopolitics’ turn again: Covid-19 edition

By Mary Karnachoritou

Henry Kissinger the well awarded American diplomat spoke of the “Post corona-virus world order” However prejudicial Covid-19 has been, not all countries came through as losers. In fact, the pandemic constituted a unique chance for international players and coalitions to re-negotiate their status. Crises- from the Greek word “Krisis” meaning “the decisive moment”- like this have the potential to change geopolitical trends and priorities exposing the international system to rearrangement. In this article I aim to explore the impact that the pandemic had in the geopolitical puzzle and especially in the European Union. What are Brussels’ next steps in these shifting times? Are we heading towards a reversed status quo in international relations with the East dominating the West?

China appears to be the big winner of this pandemic. Although China was the first country affected by the virus when it emerged, China was also the first to overcome it by applying strict lockdown measures. In this way, China had the chance to manage the crisis and even work as a role model and assistant to other nations. The choice of the Chinese government was not a coincidence as it adopted the well tested “superpower” attitude that superpowers have used in previous crises. To be more specific, China was also favored because of its widely developed and cheap technological production chains which experienced extreme demand during this period. The world and especially emerging economies are highly dependent on Chinese value chains for their economy to function and to prosper. This realization is indicative of China’s growing power over the last decades. Europe’s own characterization of China as “cooperation partner” and “systemic rival” proves its importance in the international system. Moreover, the pandemic placed China in a disadvantageous position of global criticism, hate speech and prejudice. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping used the international stance in his favor by changing China’s usual diplomatic behavior abroad into a more aggressive one that now was legitimately based. In other words, the pandemic could be considered as the start of the Sino-American rivalry in practice as China reveals its true capabilities in this international chess game.

The United States of America on the other hand faced for the first time a palpable shock of their rules-based system. As the adviser of Joseph Borell, Nathalie Tocci highlighted, the coronavirus crisis has been a “Suez moment for the US” meaning that this pandemic encroached the deep foundations of US dominance in the modern world. The biggest geopolitical loss it had to suffer is the shift to the East. Trump’s administration and its ineffective response towards coronavirus has made the country fold back on the interior matters while foreign policy remained antagonistic, or even in the margins of enigmatic. The US democratic model seemed incompetent to confront the spread of the virus something that did not prove difficult for more authoritarian governance models. Although this phenomenally effective response may stem from the transparency deficiency that exists in those countries providing distorted reality facts.The current  Biden administration is expected to turn towards the Atlantic alliance and to fortify its allies in the West implying the EU.

 The European Union, on its part, has proven to be on the losing side of this health crisis. In particular, European states once again showed their incapacity to work together and create a united front against the invisible enemy that this time knew no borders or North-South, East-West axes. National interests provoked an unprecedented isolation since the Single European Act, instead of a Union solidarity. The goals that have been set by the new Geopolitical Commission under Ursula Von der Leyen were one by one fading in front of the current health situation. Even Union’s core values such as democracy, freedom and rule of law were severely restricted causing social turbulences and introduced some degree of contestation in the European Strategic Compass. Health does not fall within EU’s competences, but as previous crises have indicated, further integration in the affected spheres becomes unavoidable. The introduction of the Recovery Fund is the collective response that Europeans choose to support. Furthermore, the enhancement of the Banking Union is attached to the general European efforts for a strategic autonomy in the financial and technological area. Although strategic autonomy does not apply in the foreign policy, it constitutes a step forward for more coherent and concrete European policies. With the covid-19 crisis the EU entered an era of redefinition and as happens in these periods of time, re-evaluation of pre established authorities takes place. In European Union’s case it seems that the pandemic highlighted the role of the European Parliament which is expected to strengthen in power in the following years if the context of a more integrationist agenda, prevails.All in all, it is an indisputable fact that the times we are facing are highly transitional in terms of high politics. New game rules have been introduced this time stemming from the East. While emerging eastern states seem to shape the world of alliances coloring it with more authoritarian traits, the west is moving towards strengthening its preexisting structures. NATO and more specifically EU-US relations are drawn closer so as a counterbalance to what it appears to be a Sino-Russian “confluence” of interests and values. Although Europe’s perception of China is that of the “Icy Friend”, the continent’s future points toward the Western alliances. The EU’s ambition to play an active role in the Sino-American antagonism, underlines the need for a strong democratic institutional set up, and what is better than the European Parliament whose role has been signified steadily over the past years. States ‘geopolitics remain at a crossover and only the unfreezing of  time  of the Covid-19 era will point to the next direction.

AstraZeneca reluctance: consequence of faltering EU vaccination strategy?

By Gregory Lens

Imagine a scene in a medical thriller in which safe and thoroughly checked vaccines against a highly contagious and deadly disease are available, at last providing a way out of a global pandemic that has been holding the world hostage for over a year. In that movie, the protagonists refuse the vaccine that has been proven to be effective in the hopes of receiving another vaccine, thereby postponing the long-awaited herd immunity solely through personal vaccine preference. Most movie-watchers would be appalled and describe the script as unrealistic. However, this scenario is not fiction but the bitter reality in the European Union. When vaccination against Covid-19 is the primary concern all over the world, various European states report stockpiles of unused Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines in their vaccination centers. 

Vaccine rollout in the European Union is the second-lowest in the developed world. So why are its people so reluctant to get inoculated with one of the already sparsely available vaccines? The main cause for the stocked fridges is the bad reputation the joint British-Swedish produced vaccine has received. This reputation has been tarnished by a plethora of negative criticism, ranging from ineffectiveness in older age groups and limited protection against new strains of the virus to a rushed authorization process. The psychological issue related to AstraZeneca hesitancy can be traced back to early claims made by high-ranking EU figures, including French President Emmanuel Macron. 

After the pharmaceutical giant failed to deliver its promised doses to the EU in early February, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides condemned the company. They demanded increased production to fulfil contractual obligations. In his subsequent responses to mounting criticism, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot announced that the drugmaker would not be able to increase capacity to live up to its promised deliveries. The adverse publicity related to this battle between the company and the European Commission planted the seeds for the negative reputation that would soon adhere to the Anglo-Swedish vaccine. Shortly after the public rift between AstraZeneca and the Commission, doubts about the vaccine’s effectiveness were proclaimed. Various states consequently limited the jab to people under the age of 65, while some even lowered the limit to 55. Why were these doubts cast only on this particular vaccine? 

The EU has been trailing the United Kingdom in vaccine deliveries and approval of vaccines by different manufacturers, ultimately leading to a comparatively extremely low vaccination rate. This has led to the EU facing criticism from its citizens and even from EU parliament members. The UK is moving towards a vaccination rate of 30%, while most EU member states are still stuck in the single digits.* Since Brexit, the UK has the power to roll out vaccines without having to wait for approval by the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA). At a time during which the UK is touting its newly found freedom from the Union as a cause for its successful vaccination campaign, could undermining the primary vaccine developed and deployed in the UK be a strategy of the EU to save its face?

By casting doubts over the vaccine’s effectiveness, the number of inoculated people would not matter anymore. If the jab were deemed ineffective, the percentages of vaccinated people would be rendered meaningless if they were believed not to be protected after all. 

Faced with growing frustration, EU leaders might have been convinced that the only solution to deflect criticism from the EU vaccination strategy was to create mistrust over its former member state’s successful campaign. The Commission has repeatedly emphasized the importance of vaccine quality and approval by the EMA over fast-tracking to speed up the campaign. Through maintaining the quality-over-quantity narrative, the EU continues to portray the UK campaign as rushed. 

Whether the intent to deliberately discredit the AstraZeneca vaccine did indeed exist will remain a question mark. As opposed to the reason behind the doubts, the consequences are crystal clear. Vast amounts of doses remain unused in European medical stock facilities, even after staunch critics of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine have backtracked their past statements after they were disproved by extensive research. It remains uncertain whether an already vaccine-wary general public will be as eager to revise its opinion on the vaccine as its leaders have done.

*at the time of writing on 4 March 2021