It didn’t order enough vaccines, spent too little money, dithered over authorisation and then lashed out at the companies making them. Over the last few weeks, the catastrophe of the European Union’s vaccine roll-out has become painfully clear to everyone. We are already starting to see the toll it is taking on the continent’s health, with a brutal third wave sweeping across mainland Europe as new variants hit an unvaccinated population, and with fresh lockdowns, overflowing hospitals, and death tolls still climbing as they fall dramatically elsewhere. And yet there is also a second stage to that crisis – an economic catastrophe – that is just getting started.
This morning, new terrible figures were released for industrial production in Europe. In Germany, output was down by 1.6 per cent month on month, although all the forecasts were for output to increase significantly. France was far worse, with a 4.7 per cent fall in production, despite forecasts of an expansion, while across the border in Spain growth was stagnant. Overall, predictions of an economic expansion this year are starting to be scaled back, and that is likely to continue the longer countries remain locked down.
It is not hard to understand what is happening. As economies are forced to close down to keep infection rates under control, output inevitably suffers. Meanwhile rivals such as Britain and the United States are starting to open up again, while most of Asia never closed down in the same way. Their companies can operate normally, while German, French, and Italian rivals are not allowed to. It will hardly be a great surprise if they are winning orders while continental competitors are losing them.
In truth, the economic damage is going to get worse. Industry and services will remain locked down for far longer than was necessary, and will take far longer to recover. A far larger percentage will also never come back. Government debt will climb even higher, as tax revenues are depressed, and the cost of support measures continues to rise. Germany might be able to afford that, but France is already the fourth biggest debtor in the world measured by total amount owed, while Italy may reach the point where its debts become unsustainable without some form of write-off – even with the European Central Bank printing money like crazy. A second missed tourist season will inflict huge damage on the heavily-indebted economies of Southern Europe (tourism accounts for 21 per cent of GDP in Greece, and 12 per cent in Spain). Meanwhile, by seizing supplies, the EU has trashed its reputation as a place to do business, and the memory of its bungling, aggressive incompetence will stick around for a long time. Many global investors won’t think of Germany as the hyper-efficient country they thought it was, or France and the Netherlands as places where property rights are respected.
The vaccination disaster will be fixed eventually. Germany managed more than 700,000 vaccinations a day this week, and France has gone above 400,000. More supplies will arrive over the next two months. People will be inoculated, and Covid-19 will come under control. But the economic catastrophe is just starting – and that will soon be a far bigger problem for the continent.
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