The EU’s vaccine against nationalism

The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.

The European Union’s “crown jewel” is out: the Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference. The donor conference, starting on May 4, is represented as the biggest public endeavor to rally solidarity and unity in the face of the coronavirus crisis by the EU as an institution. 

The target is clear: the EU Commission strives to be the global pioneer in developing and disseminating the vaccine for COVID-19, and has set a target of 7.5 to 8 billion Euros to fund the vaccine project. But, just as a pipe is not just a pipe, sometimes a vaccine is not just a vaccine: the online donor conference was conceived as an ambitious way to assert that the European project is alive and kicking, and has a unique position in the world that cannot be filled by any other party. In other words, although the EU had a dismal start to facing the coronavirus crisis as an institution, it still wants to have a grand finale. 

While promoting the donor conference, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared, “We know we can only defeat the virus with a vaccine. We need global cooperation, and the pledging conference is on filling the funding gap.”

As a recent New York Times report titled “Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies” put it:

“In an era of intense nationalism, the geopolitics of the vaccine race are growing as complex as the medicine. The months of mutual vilification between the United States and China over the origins of the virus have poisoned most efforts at cooperation between them. The U.S. government is already warning that American innovations must be protected from theft — chiefly from Beijing.”

While there are many reports focusing on the race for developing the vaccine, I selected this quote from the report specifically as it emphasizes the buzzword for Europe: “geopolitical.” The new EU Commission Presidency had set out to be a “geopolitical Commission” when it was taking over in December 2019. Be careful what you wish for, it may come true — and that’s especially true for the EU Commission. The challenges that lined up one after the other since the beginning of 2020 have indeed been so global in scale that the EU Commission has really had to be geopolitical. 

But, in a well-known move, instead of going global, the EU resorted to snuggling deep into its ivory tower, turning to the old “sleeping pill” of nationalism, and being stingy when it came to sharing and solidarity. The EU’s initial response was so “absent” that von der Leyen had to extend a “heartfelt apology” to Italy on behalf of all of Europe. Would an apology remedy the resentment in hearts and minds? Pollster SWG found that 52 percent of Italians believed that China is a friendly country, and that was the highest support any country got in the poll held from March 20 to April 12. On the other hand, 45 percent of Italians saw Germany as an “enemy country.” Likewise, 38 percent of Italians view France as the same. Italians’ trust in the European Union slipped down from 42 percent in September to 27 percent in April, and the EU Commission faced even a further dip in trust in the same period — from 41 percent to 21 percent. 

EU Commission President von der Leyen claimed that “Europe has now become the world’s beating heart of solidarity,” emphasizing efforts made by EU institutions and member states such as the transferring of medical equipment. After witnessing China’s streams of medical supply shipments to Italy dotted with sweet, poetic notes like “We are the waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree” in the early days of the pandemic crisis, the EU Commission leadership team started a public relations campaign to emphasize that they are doing much more. 

The Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference of the EU Commission was originally going to host Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, but a very last-minute switch saw him replaced with the head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, Ambassador Zhang Ming. 

The co-chairs of the conference, which include Japan, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Norway alongside France, Germany, and Britain, make an interesting concoction. Italy and Spain were among the co-chairs from the “victims’ ticket.” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was among the prime invitees, and he intervened and pledged as one of the first speakers after the co-chairs. Notably, Erdoğan and Israel’s “new again” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches almost followed each other, with only the president of the Swiss Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, squeezed in between. 

The biggest partner of the EU Commission in organizing the donor conference was the Gates Foundation. Featuring as a speaker, Melinda Gates was the face of the Gates Foundation. As Gates noted, the European Commission is the key player that can bring all the international parties to the table and prevent “the wealthiest countries from putting their own needs first.” All parties except the United States, that is. Evidently “America First” also means no America on the table. 

On the one hand, no institution but the EU could bring these countries to the same table (although that table is now virtual). That’s not to mention all the international organizations involved, which range from the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank to the Vaccine Alliance, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Moreover, there is no other global initiative developing the COVID-19 vaccine as a “not-for-profit” project that prioritizes the neediest and least-developed, either.

The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.

Regardless of its actual failings and achievements, an unexpected bonus of the conference may be the defrosting of Turkey-EU relations. 

Speaking via webinar titled “The European Union and Turkey: EU Relations in the COVID-19 Process” on April 22, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister and Director for EU Affairs Faruk Kaymakci said: "COVID-19 has led to an increase in dialogue that was blocked politically between the EU and Turkey. We hope we can get more effective results." Following his remarks, the EU Commission President von der Leyen had a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and requested on behalf of the EU that Turkey assumes “an active role in the conference.”

So Turkey did actually partake in a European initiative after a long gap. Will a new immigrant deal follow? That’s at least what Turkey expects. 

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