Echoes from the Napoleonic Wars can be heard in EU's vaccine export row

For all the ideals that underpin a peace project like the European Union, the traits of the continent's violent past are closer to the surface than we think

European Commissioner in charge of Health Stella Kyriakides removes her face mask during an online news conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. The European Union and AstraZeneca agreed Friday to make public a heavily redacted version of their coronavirus vaccine agreement, which lies at the heart of a dispute over how many shots the pharmaceutical company should be supplying the EU's 27 nations. (Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP)
Powered by automated translation

For months, the principle of universal access to coronavirus vaccines has been a globally shared goal. Yet on Friday, the European Union adopted powers to ban the export of vaccines from member states.

The decision immediately triggered fears that the global supply chains for vaccine production could suffer a "black swan" disruption from what was portrayed as a limited regulatory move. Not just finished product but inputs and sensitive equipment were also blockaded.

Since the launch of vaccines to fight Covid-19, the pressures for access have been too great for the European leadership to handle. Temptation to adopt the me-first approach and junk universality became all too real.

At a viral vaccine summit last year, all the European leaders pledged themselves to the highest standards. Commitments were made to global bodies with initiatives such as Gavi and Covax. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres's catch-cry – "with this pandemic, none of us are safe until all of us are safe” – was applauded.

Mr Guterres' native continent has descended into a frenzy of feigns and panics reminiscent of behaviour under a very different world order. In fact, Europe is now jockeying in a kind of reversion to an ugly mean. The saga resembles feverish phases and swirling loyalties that powered the Napoleonic Wars, a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire against European powers formed into various coalitions.

Last year, the vaccines were in research when the EU bound all its members into a pact to procure them for the whole bloc. As months elapsed, officials in Brussels were in charge of negotiating purchases for Germany as well as Portugal and Luxembourg. It now seems strange to recall that the UK government came under fire for opting out of the scheme and deciding to go it alone.

Two main problems emerged with the European approach. It decided to use a supermarket chain-purchasing strategy. It held out for lower costs and assumed that its bargaining power would get it preferential delivery terms. It allocated just €2.7 million ($3.2m) for the first-order schedule. It also decided to reserve relatively few doses from German manufacturers BioNTech and spilt capacity for a French-made vaccine.

The rollout of the first vaccines almost immediately exposed the fragility of the rule.

An unseemly contractual dispute with AstraZeneca quickly turned into a political row. The EU's treatment of the Swedish-British pharmaceutical giant allowed the UK to leap far ahead of Europe in mass vaccination. Almost eight million, more than 14 per cent of the population, have received at least the first dose. While Europe has now approved the AstraZeneca/Oxford treatment, it is infuriated by delays in the delivery schedule. AstraZeneca, a thoroughly European corporation, has been accused of working for the other side.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812, Napoleon's last offensive battle in his Russian campaign and the bloodiest of all the engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. France lost apprxomately 33,000 dead and wounded and Russia 44,000. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
The 1812 Battle of Borodino. The battle was a part of the Napoleonic Wars, a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire against European powers formed into various coalitions. Getty Images

In an editorial, Der Spiegel magazine declared that vaccines are "the most important" global resource. The more scarce they are, the harder the struggle is because the value lies far ahead of data, gold or weapons, it said. That has led to the torrid developments of last week during which the EU forfeited plenty of international political capital by taking powers to ban the export of the vaccine.

It even briefly invoked a last-resort clause in the just-minted Brexit deal to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol blowing up a row with London over just who controls trade between Britain and Ireland. It subsequently reversed its decision.

Just beyond these disputes, the pharmaceutical companies are acting like large standing militias in the Napoleonic era. The French firm, Sanofi, which has not yet brought its vaccine to development phase, has agreed to manufacture the one by Pfizer/BioNTech to ensure more doses come online. The Switzerland-based drug maker, Novartis, has also signed up to make the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The country has been exempted from the EU ban on exports. Meanwhile, another French vaccine firm – Valneva – has thrown its lot in with perfidious Albion and opened a manufacturing plant in Scotland.

In the heat of the battle, all sides share the same goal and want it for themselves.

The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes), 1873-1875. Found in the collection of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Iron Rolling Mill painting is found in the collection of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin – one of the many images depicting the Industrial Revolution. Getty Images
In the heat of the battle, all sides share the same goal and want it for themselves

As the historian Christopher Herold noted, the war against Napoleon was won by Russia, Austria and Prussia. However, to the final victor went the spoils: “England won the last battle and she won the peace.” The Napoleonic conflict was a nearly two-decade power struggle that ebbed and flowed across Europe. It is no exaggeration to say that its battlelines set the frontiers for the Industrial Revolution and thus shaped the modern world.

To view that chapter in Europe's history in terms of the rise and defeat of Napoleon is not really instructive to what the consequences were. There were at least seven major coalitions formed to fight the battles. And Europeans are understandably sensitive about the continent’s reputation for staging internecine wars. The names of the conflicts tell their own stories: Hundred Years' War, Thirty Years' War, Napoleon Wars, First World War and Second World War.

The desire to create a peace project unrivalled in human history after the Second World War was genuine and an unalloyed achievement for all the generations since. But for all the ideals that underpin the European Union, the traits of history are closer to the surface than we think.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National