By blocking Covid-19 vaccine patent waivers, the EU is damaging its reputation and holding the world back.
Earlier this month, European Union leaders met in Portugal to ‘reinvigorate’ their commitment to social rights and affirm the importance of ‘European unity and solidarity in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic’. Yet the EU’s continued opposition to the suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines and supplies demonstrates a stunning lack of solidarity and makes such declarations appear little more than hot air.
Many campaigners now view the EU as Big Pharma’s biggest lobbyist at the G20. If European leaders are serious about ‘ensuring no one is left behind’, it’s time to join the World Health Organization, health-worker unions, Joe Biden’s administration in the United States and the majority of the world’s governments in pushing for a Covid-19 patent waiver at the World Trade Organization—so we can ramp up production of vaccines and supplies, ensure equal access and finally end these lockdowns.
Europe’s experience through the last global financial crisis demonstrates the dangers which arise when business interests are put ahead of social rights. After 2008, the EU’s promotion of bank bailouts and strict austerity measures decimated public services across the continent.
In Italy, the health service was slashed by €37 billion between 2010 and 2019, in part to comply with EU stringency requirements. In Greece, a Lancet study found that austerity programmes were the principal cause of increased mortality. Observing the damage, one Forbes writer noted that ‘anyone would think this was a war zone, not an advanced country’.
Not only did these measures leave many states ill-prepared for the pandemic; they also contributed to the rapid rise of Eurosceptic parties, which have doubled their vote-share over the past two decades. Prioritising social rights is about more than rebranding—it’s about securing the future of the entire EU project.
We all know recovery cannot be a return to ‘normal’. If EU leaders really want a fairer Europe, they must stop clinging to the outdated and discredited ideas which stunted the recovery after the last crisis.
The Biden administration has already understood this and is pursuing bold and essential policy change. This includes a reformed tax system, where pandemic profiteers are made to contribute to the cost of recovery, and new legislation which would require corporations to reveal where they do (or do not) pay their taxes.
Yet when similar measures were under discussion at the EU level, leak revealed France’s official position had been developed by one of Europe’s biggest corporate lobby groups. Such revelations breed cynicism, undermine public faith and add to anti-‘Brussels’ sentiment.
If the EU and its member states would stop pandering to corporate interests and instead join the US in demonstrating progressive global leadership, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the world a better, fairer, more social place. An opportunity to end offshore tax dodging, which costs us the equivalent of one nurse’s salary every second. To forgive odious debt in the global south, which undermines urgently needed health employment. And to reshape the development agenda so that quality public services—the key to achieving human rights—are finally put first.
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Public Services International represents millions of workers across the world who have given their all to save lives and put everything in place to get us vaccinated. Just this week, Jibin Theerthakkuzhi Chalil of the United Nurses Association of India told us: ‘[W]e are facing a humanitarian disaster and we need to use all the tools we have to tame the pandemic in India and everywhere else, fast. It comes down to a simple choice, to share or not to share.’
The EU’s stance is weakening the bloc’s diplomatic influence, providing ample space for China and Russia to grow their soft power through vaccine diplomacy efforts, as countries unable to produce their own supplies become increasingly reliant on Beijing and Moscow.
Meanwhile more than 400 MPs and MEPs from across Europe have called on the EU to change its position. The European Parliament has already voted in favour of patent suspensions and the sharing of lifesaving technology. And many EU leaders—including Emmanuel Macron in France and Pedro Sanchez in Spain—have said they are open to such proposals.
Yet the European Commission, along with Germany and a handful of other countries, is holding the world back through diehard devotion to Big-Pharma monopolies. German civil-society groups are pleading: ‘While we pour into beer gardens … we watch as mass graves are dug around the world. What is going on?’
By putting corporate interests ahead of the public interest, the EU is doing lasting damage to its reputation—regionally and on the global stage. It’s time to make solidarity more than just a buzzword. And that starts with supporting Covid-19 vaccine patent waivers.