17th Oct 2021


If EU blocks vaccine waivers, it can drop 'solidarity' talk

  • If European leaders are serious about "ensuring no one is left behind," it's time to join with the WHO, health worker unions, the Biden Administration and the majority of the world's governments, pushing for a Covid patent-waiver at the WTO (Photo:

Earlier this month, EU 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 look like little more than hot air.

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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 with the WHO, health worker unions, the Biden Administration and the majority of the world's governments in pushing for a Covid patent-waiver at the WTO, 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.

Since 2008, the EU's promotion of bank bailouts and strict austerity measures decimated our public services across the continent. In Italy, the National Health Service was slashed by €37bn between 2010-2019, in part to comply with EU expenditure rules.

In Greece, a Lancet study found that austerity programs were the principal cause for increased mortality rates. Observing the damage, one Forbes writer noted "anyone would think this was a war zone, not an advanced country."

Not only have these measures left many states ill-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic; they also contributed to the rapid rise of Eurosceptic parties, who have doubled their vote-share across the past two decades. Prioritising social rights is about more than just rebranding - it's about securing the future of the entire EU project.

We all know the Covid recovery cannot be a return to normal. If EU leaders really want a fairer Europe, they must stop clinging to the back-dated and broken ideas which stunted recovery from 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 rules which require corporations to publicly reveal where they do (or do not) pay their taxes.

Yet when similar measures were under discussion at the EU level, a 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 were to stop pandering to corporate interests and instead join with 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. 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.

My union federation - 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.

Pleas from India's nurses

Just this week, Jibin Theerthakkuzhi Chalil of the United Nurses Association of India told us "we 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."

Workers such as Chalil are furious that the EU is undermining their best efforts and exacerbating the crisis by continuing to put big-pharma profits first. Is this what solidarity looks like?

Over 400 European MPs and MEPs have called on the EU to finally back patent waivers.

The EU Parliament has already voted in favour of patent suspensions and the sharing of life-saving technology. And many EU leaders - including Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sánchez - have said they are open to such proposals.

Yet the EU Commission along with Germany and a small handful of other countries are holding the entire world back through their diehard devotion to Big-Pharma monopolies. A plea for change published by German Civil Society groups last week says "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; both locally and on the global stage. It's time to make solidarity more than just a buzzword.

And that starts with supporting Covid patent waivers.

Author bio

Rosa Pavanelli is general secretary of Public Services International, the global union federation representing millions of frontline and health care workers across Europe and the world, including CFDT/CGT in France, Verdi in Germany and CGIL in Italy.


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

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