Europe’s Populists Ready to Seize on COVID Vaccination Bungle

Europe’s populists have seen their polling numbers dip since the coronavirus emerged on the continent, but as the economic impact of lockdowns and restrictions starts to be felt in earnest, widening income disparity, they could see a revival, some analysts forecast.  Others argue that won’t happen, if incumbent governments and establishment parties can restore public faith in their competence, cushion lower-income and rural populations from economic misery, and get their countries back on track working again soon.  The populist challenge is dimming, they say, pointing to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s November election loss on the other side of the Atlantic. “One reason is their trademark scorn for expertise, which enthuses a minority of voters but unsettles many more who are worried about their health and livelihoods,” according to Tony Barber, Europe editor of the Financial Times. An elderly visitor receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Cent Quatre cultural center in Paris, France, Feb. 1, 2021.While acknowledging that the populists have not had a “good” pandemic, Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist and visiting fellow at Britain’s Chatham House research group, believes political turbulence generally lies downstream of crises and the Great Lockdown will have seismic effects that are hard to foresee.”Emerging evidence shows it looks fairly certain the Great Lockdown will actually exacerbate divides in our society that began to sharpen a few decades ago, and were then worsened by the Great Recession,” he said. The European Union isn’t helping to head off a possible revival in political populism on the continent, which recruits partly on the basis of euro-skepticism. Logistical missteps and hidebound bureaucracy have marred the EU’s vaccine rollout, prompting rising public frustration with the pace of inoculations and adding to anxiety about a grim northern hemisphere winter ahead. Some commentators see this as a gift for populists with the low-paid, the unskilled and those in insecure jobs hit the hardest by prolonged lockdowns.  The EU’s struggle to secure enough early doses to make headway in the inoculation of the bloc’s 446 million people has put the bloc front and center of widespread anger. Last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was framing prematurely the bloc’s vaccine procurement strategy as a “European success story.”  FILE – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the end of an EU summit video conference at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Jan. 21, 2021.The 62-year-old German, French President Emmanuel Macron’s pick for the top job at the EC, had maintained that Brussels should take the lead in negotiating and procuring vaccine supplies for all 27 member states. She had the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called a halt to negotiations already under way between vaccine developer AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish firm, and Germany’s health minister, along with his counterparts in France, Italy and the Netherlands.  Von der Leyen, supported by Merkel, argued a collective approach would work better as it would avoid vaccine nationalism and competition among member states. Negotiating as a bloc would provide more leverage to haggle over pricing with the pharmaceutical giants.  But an overriding motivation was to show how well the EU could do. That would overshadow the bloc’s lack of solidarity at the start of the pandemic, when calls for help from Italy, the first country to suffer the full force of the virus, were rebuffed, and member states competed for supplies of personal protective equipment and shut borders without consulting each other. Some of the problems in the rollout have been country-specific but there are mounting doubts about the EU’s collective approach to procurement and distribution. Go-it-alone Britain has vaccinated more than 13% of its adults so far while the EU average is barely nudging 2%, with the gap growing. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks past waiting patients as he visits a COVID-19 vaccination center in Batley, West Yorkshire, Britain, Feb. 1, 2021.British regulatory authorities were quicker to approve vaccines and signed contracts with manufacturers three months before the EU. As a result, Britain has not been impacted as much as the EU by production delays and difficulties. On January 22, the EU reacted with fury when AstraZeneca disclosed it would have to reduce by around two-thirds doses expected over the next two months because of production difficulties.  “There are no signs that the vaccination rate in the EU is accelerating, unlike in the U.K. and U.S., where daily vaccination rates have increased substantially in the past few weeks,” according to Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based research group. “Part of the explanation is that the EU ordered too few vaccines too late. It was slow to order the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, even when it became the front-runner and its efficacy had been documented.”  The Bruegel director has also faulted the EU for not thinking ahead and crafting a strategy to increase vaccine production by mobilizing other manufacturers to help to do so. He cautioned it is “impossible to say how things would have gone if there had not been joint EU action.” Nonetheless, the EU’s logistical missteps are drawing fire.  FILE – Bavaria’s State Prime Minister Markus Soeder removes his protective mask before a so-called home office summit during the coronavirus pandemic in Munich, Germany, Jan. 13, 2021.Markus Soeder, the premier of the German state of Bavaria, and a contender to succeed Merkel when she quits in September, said the “operational responsibility” for the “more than unsatisfactory” situation rests with Brussels. “The decision was made in what I think is a typical, normal, bureaucratic EU procedure,” he added.  Von der Leyen was the subject of a scathing article Sunday by Germany’s leading magazine Der Spiegel, which said the vaccine rollout “might ultimately turn out to be the greatest disaster of her political career.” With lockdown frustration building — the Netherlands experienced three days of riots last week after the government introduced a nighttime curfew — and with anger building over the snail-like pace of inoculation, populists see a political opening. Some had aligned themselves with anti-vaccine skeptics but are moving away from that position and focusing now on the issue of EU competence.    France’s Marine Le Pen, the euro-skeptic far-right leader, has seen her popularity surge. A poll last week showed her trailing Macron by just 52% to 48%. Macron faces a tough reelection bid next year.  

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