In recent nights, rioters have poured on to the streets of 10 Dutch cities in what has been the closest Europe has come to open revolt against the coronavirus restrictions imposed across the continent.
The violence, the worst in four decades, might be put down to the liberty-loving culture of the country or an outbreak of straightforward criminality but, perhaps not coincidentally, the Netherlands is also the very last EU member state to start vaccinating the public and offer some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The tough reality, however, is that the Dutch are far from being standout stragglers among the pack of 27 member states. The EU as a whole has been lethargic in getting the vaccines they have purchased into the arms of the citizens whose taxes have paid for it. The UK has administered 10.8 doses per 100 people. The EU average is just 2.1 doses per 100 people.
A forecast by the data analytics company Airfinity, based on the agreed vaccine supply deals and taking into account the latest developments in terms of delayed production, suggests that the UK will have achieved herd immunity by vaccinating 75% of the population by 14 July, closely followed by the US on 9 August. The EU will have to wait until 21 October.
Over the weekend, Patrick Pelloux, chairman of the French Association of Accident and Emergency Doctors, put it succinctly. “People want to be vaccinated... The situation is explosive. I think we can’t rule out riots [by people] wanting to be vaccinated.”
“The EU’s challenge is largely supply related,” said Rasmus Bech Hansen, Airfinity’s chief executive. Vaccines have been approved more slowly, advanced orders agreed later. The amounts ordered per capita from successful vaccine candidates were only latterly bolstered. There has been less investment “on a comparative basis in early research and design and production which is now causing delays in production scale-up,” said Bech Hansen.
To add British insult to injury, Boris Johnson and his health secretary, Matt Hancock, have not been shy in highlighting the UK’s singular triumph in getting jabs in arms.
We have ensured Britain is leading the way on vaccinations by accelerating our Vaccines Delivery Plan, the largest vaccination programme in British history. 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/EdeNKwYf9w
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) January 12, 2021
It is perhaps not surprising then that the fear in Brussels and elsewhere is that that frustrations vented in Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Amsterdam are just the start of something.
If Brussels cannot offer hope that the curfews and cafe closures will end this summer, then attitudes are only likely to harden both to national governments and the EU’s institutions. The difficulties with the vaccination strategy do not come out of a vacuum, after all.
Italy had cause to criticise the EU for lack of solidarity during the early weeks of the pandemic last year, when its appeals for personal protective equipment for its over-burdened hospitals were initially ignored.
The 27 member states’ agreement on €750bn recovery fund was held up by a row over attempts to tie Hungary and Poland to rule of law conditions, sparking questions over the shared values of the member states.
It is in this context, then, that the European commission received the news last Friday that should the European medicines agency give its authorisation to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of this week that deliveries in the first quarter of this year will be just 25% of those expected due to a problem with a plant in Belgium.
The bloc is relying on the company for a total of 400m doses of which around 100m was due before April. The reduction in supply is a health disaster. The fact that the company insists that this is purely an EU problem and not one that will impact on British supply from UK plants turns it into a political one as well.
The Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws warned in an editorial published on Wednesday morning that “if the European Union continues to mess with its vaccination policy like this, it will prove to the Brexiteers that they are right”.
The EU’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides has insisted that the company is wrong and that the bloc has a right to doses made in UK plants. Kyriakides has also argued that there is a “moral” responsibility for the doses to be equally shared out.
It would come to something if it requires Johnson to come to the rescue by waiving his contractual rights to the first 100m doses made in UK plants to allow some to go to the EU. A nasty clash is likely instead.
There is a great deal at stake in the coming weeks and the scenes from the Netherlands should be taken as a warning: for all that the Europe’s streets are generally still, emotions are at risk of running high.