Part of Europe’s problem is demography. EU populations are old by global standards, making them more susceptible to the disease. Other less well understood factors, such as crowded cities, may also make Europeans vulnerable. The cross-border mobility that is one of the EU’s great achievements probably worked in favour of the virus, and no one will want to curb that when the pandemic eases.
But part of Europe’s problem is politics. Jean Monnet, a French diplomat who helped found the European project, famously wrote that “Europe will be forged in crisis.” When things are at their worst, those words are seized on to suggest the EU will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sure enough, during the euro crisis the European Central Bank (ECB) eventually saved the day with new policies; likewise, the migration crisis of 2015 greatly enhanced Frontex, the EU’s border-security force.
However, Monnet’s dictum is also a source of complacency. The civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to the declaration that “This is the hour of Europe”. Years of carnage followed. Likewise, last year’s decision to give the European Commission sole responsibility for buying and sharing out covid-19 vaccines for 450m people has been a buck-passing disaster.
It made sense to pool the research effort of 27 countries and their funds for pre-purchasing vaccines, just as Operation Warp Speed in America brought together 50 states. However, the EU’s bureaucracy mismanaged the contract negotiations, perhaps because national governments generally oversee public health. The project was handled chiefly by the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who gleefully called the decision to expand her empire a “European success story”.