13th Apr 2021


What if Covid-19 had happened under Jean Monnet?

On 31 January 1917 the German Empire declared unlimited submarine warfare to undermine US´ material support to the French and British war efforts.

In response, the Western Allies put in place the Shipping Control Council to closely coordinate their demand for ships and plan military and civilian support based on sound statistics.

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  • 'Positively, Thierry Breton, who has an industry background, is in charge of a vaccine production taskforce. Nevertheless we must step up further'

One of the masterminds behind this initiative was a French businessman, who had started his career in his father's Cognac company: Jean Monnet.

Monnet repeated his feat of logistical co-ordination and building-up war economies during the Second World War, when he became a central player of French-British and then British-US co-operation. He went on to become a founding father of the EU, as EUobserver readers will know.

I am not usually a fan of using war as a metaphor for any challenge, but the fight against Covid has the hallmarks of warfare. The threat is so overwhelming that it dominates everything else.

You cannot manage the pandemic as just another health issue, if it is highly-viral and highly-dangerous. Suppressing it represents an urgent and overarching policy challenge for any government around the globe. Almost everybody is involved in it.

Some 20 years ago, the American political scientist Robert Kagan argued that Americans are from Mars, seeing the world as a dangerous and chaotic place in which ultimately brute force prevails, while Europeans are from Venus, believing in rules and predictability.

There is something of this in their respective responses to Corona.

A year ago, the world praised the calm leadership of the scientist-chancellor Angela Merkel, who compared well to the chaotic and irresponsible management of Donald Trump.

Now we realise that despite the inept president, the US administration got something fundamentally right.

Operation Warp Speed

With 'Operation Warp Speed', announced in April 2020, it concentrated massive resources on the development and production of vaccines. 'Warp Speed' had a whiff of Monnet-thinking to it.

An intensive, systematic and data-based government initiative that closely aligned industry towards a single objective.

In the EU we were nowhere close to that level of effort. Sure, governments also funded research: BioNTech made its breakthrough with significant German state funding.

But there was far too little attention to all the nooks and crannies of development and production, as well as the logistical complications behind these efforts.

The European Commission, often dominated by lawyers, instead spent significant energy in negotiating paragraphs in contracts.

There is nothing wrong with lawyers, I am one myself.

But their concerns can often be hypothetical, fearing abuse by the other side and believing that law is what will mainly shape a business, when it is only one element among many.

AstraZeneca is reneging on its legal obligations because it overpromised to all parties and seems to have concluded, until recently, that honouring its promises to the EU was less in its interest than other promises made.

Monnet the businessman

Monnet was a businessman. He knew how it worked.

The EU should have factored in some business fundamentals from the beginning. One is that vaccine production is highly complex and that for companies, switching production temporarily to something different than your usual profitable products is not attractive.

The state should step in from the first moment. The EU and its member states never had a Mario Draghi moment of "whatever it takes", signalling that they would use all tools at their disposal, be it deep co-ordination, massive financial support or, if necessary, nationalising essential companies.

Another business fundamental is that the US is by far the most profitable pharmaceutical market. It was to be expected that companies would give it priority.

They may even have a PR incentive to show that a deregulated market can solve the problem better. In the EU, we have an interest to show that our more equal and cheaper health systems can do the job.

We in the EU have been too slow to tackle Covid as the war-style challenge it is. There is more drive now.

Positively, Thierry Breton, who has an industry background, is in charge of a vaccine production taskforce. Nevertheless we must step up further.

Politicians in Brussels and the EU capitals must be bolder and assume true political responsibility.

The German minister of health temporarily suspended AstraZeneca vaccinations because of a suspected risk of blood clots in a small number of people. He did so following a recommendation by the federal vaccine agency and defended his decision as "a professional, not a political one."

This is the wrong approach. In an emergency, more than ever, politicians need to make hard choices and take responsibility for them. Politics is their profession.

Europe's economic recovery plans are important and should be pushed forward, but as long as the war is not won, the main focus must be on tackling Covid.

Taskforces in Brussels and in the capitals should be fully and widely empowered, and headed by one person. They need to turn every stone, anticipate all possible developments and single-mindedly marshal resources.

The strategist Clausewitz spoke of the "remarkable trinity of passion, reason and chance that underlie war".

Chance we have seen. Low or high numbers in certain countries often remain inexplicable. We have used reason, but we need to reason beyond today's numbers and whether we can go on holiday in July.

This is much bigger than that. Even if the EU´s plan of vaccinating most of the adult population by summer succeeds, this war is not over at all. There will be variants. There will be billions of other people who need to be vaccinated.

We lack passion, except of the negative sort.

Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have not found convincing language that tells us that the frustrations of a year at home alone, or a year of fighting for lives in hospitals, was worth it.

They need to emphasise that we have first class scientists, factories and finances to help winning the war for the benefit of all of humankind.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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