As non-apology apologies go, it was right up there with the best of them. Speaking to MEPs today, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen accepted that some ‘mistakes had been made’ in the procurement of vaccines against Covid-19.
Apparently the Commission had been a little too late authorising some of the shots, it had been a tad too optimistic about production, and not everything had gone according to plan. But, heck, these things happen, she went on to argue. And perhaps most crucially of all, the alternative would have been far, far worse.
‘I can’t even imagine if a few big players had rushed to it and the others went empty-handed,’ she said. ‘In economic terms it would have been nonsense and it would have been I think the end of our community.’
But hold on. Surely that is, to use her word, nonsense? In the world inhabited by von der Leyen, and presumably by the rest of the bureaucrats in the Commission, Covid-19 vaccines are somehow a fixed resource, rather like gold, or paintings by Picasso. There are only so many of them in the world, and the debate is simply about how to distribute them fairly between all the different countries that need them.
And yet of course that is not true. If the EU had spent more money – its vaccine budget was less per person compared to Britain and the United States – and agreed contracts sooner, then research and production would have been accelerated. The result? Both Europe and the rest of the world would have a lot more vaccines.
In fact, in the world that VdL seems to think is unimaginable, where the member states had been left to fend for themselves, what would probably have happened is this: Germany and France would have ramped up buying and production far more quickly and then distributed excess supply to smaller countries, if they were struggling to secure supplies on their own (although the example of small countries such as Israel and Serbia, both far ahead of the EU in vaccination roll-outs, suggests it is not that hard).
Indeed, the UK is already debating what to do with all the extra doses it has bought. If Germany, France, Italy and Spain were doing the same, the world would be awash with vaccines.
It is surely extraordinary then that the president of the EU Commission thinks the supply of any industrial product is somehow fixed – and many MEPs seem to agree with her – when the one thing we know about a market economy is that supply responds very quickly to demand.
The Commission’s ineptitude over vaccines was worrying enough. It is even worse that it seems incapable of learning any lessons from it, and that it doesn’t even appear to have a clue how a free enterprise economy works.
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