Written by Caroline Bell
[This article first appeared in Briefings for Britain. We republish with kind permission.]
A president on the ropes
Emmanuel Macron seems to delight these days in bashing AstraZeneca (and by extension, the United Kingdom) in order to divert French ire from his lamentable mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Facing a third wave which is getting rapidly out of control, and resisting clinicians’ calls for a complete lockdown to stem the rise in cases, he is now pinning his hopes (and possibly his political salvation) on a massive vaccination rollout and the arrival of warmer weather to keep coronavirus under control.
On the offensive
At last week’s European summit, he was on the offensive again, fully supporting the EU’s ban on vaccine exports, declaring that countries with better vaccination rates (the UK, obviously) “cannot be allowed to get ahead on the backs of Europeans”. Vaccination against Covid is a battle, he declared, “a battle which Europe must win”. And if you are fighting a battle, it always helps to identify the enemy. In this case, AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company which has delivered at cost a vaccine invented in Oxford and developed with British taxpayers’ money. AstraZeneca would not be allowed to fulfil its legally binding contract with the British government from its factories in the EU until it had delivered millions of doses for the EU, under a later contract which promised nothing beyond “best endeavours”. It is largely due to problems with production at its plants in the EU that AstraZeneca’s best endeavours have fallen short. The European Commission insists that the company cannot produce doses for the EU at any of its plants outside the EU except those in the UK, which, naturally, are delivering on the contract AstraZeneca signed months earlier with the British government.
Saving money, not lives
The EU has been on the back foot throughout the pandemic. It bought vaccines late and bought them as cheaply as possible. French Europe Minister Clément Beaune crowed last autumn that the UK was paying three times more to vaccinate its population than France (the implications of this boast are quite repulsive and seemingly lost on M. Beaune). The EU forced production to be restricted to EU factories in order to accrue advantages to the Single Market. Its ponderous penny-pinching protectionism is the root cause of its current vaccine shortfall. European politicians compounded the Commission’s mistakes by irresponsible (indeed slanderous) statements about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine and by suspending vaccinations on the basis of fake news. All this, it seems, to cover up their inability to develop and execute a mass vaccination programme to protect their citizens. It is failure on an epic scale which will, alas, be a personal tragedy for many.
Turning a crisis into a catastrophe
The third wave is taking hold on the Continent, vaccination rollout is painfully slow, and a cheap and effective vaccine has been so discredited by EU leaders, foremost among them President Macron, that people are now refusing to take it.
Macron is keen to pin the blame for the virus firestorm about to engulf his presidency on a foreign pharmaceutical company, rather than on his refusal to listen to his scientific advisers and adoption of half measures which have done nothing to control the spread. He is up for re-election next year, the French economy is due to take another big coronavirus hit because of the botched vaccination programme (the EU as a whole is projected to lose €123 billion), and as he has positioned himself as the final arbiter on France’s pandemic response, the buck would normally be expected to stop with him. But the president, nicknamed le poudré by some critics (a reference to the powdered hair sported by French autocrats of the past), has no intention of not winning a second term.
L’état, c’est moi
In 2016, a year before his election, the bookshops of Paris were awash with a biography on Emmanuel Macron called The banker who wanted to be king. He was certainly channelling his inner Louis XIV (and possibly his inner Edith Piaf) after last week’s EU Council: “I can tell you that I have no mea culpa to make, no remorse, no failure to acknowledge.” In other words, je ne regrette rien.
Like the doomed French monarchy, it appears that Macron has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He is incapable of learning from his mistakes – if you don’t admit to making them, you cannot. And he will never forget, nor forgive, Britain’s rejection of his beloved European Project, a version of the Carolingian empire where France would call the shots.
As well as staunchly supporting the EU’s vaccine export ban (of very dubious legality in international law), he has promised that not only will France become the epicentre for global vaccine production, with factories churning out life-saving vaccines to rescue the whole world through the Covax scheme (to which the UK contributes more than the entire EU27, by the way), but that all French citizens will be offered Covid vaccination by the summer.
But where are all the vaccines he has promised the French public going to come from?
[To be continued tomorrow in Part Two.]