Joe Biden’s proposal to liberalize the patents of anti-Covid vaccines made a big impression at the EU Social Summit in Porto and is putting the EU in a tough spot: They’re the largest contributor to the WHO Covax mechanism (for delivering vaccines to poor countries) and so far has been the only Western economic power to export doses around the world (200 million, 50% of those produced in the EU). Meanwhile the U.S. and the U.K. have blocked exports, and Biden himself, after being invited to the European Council of March 25, did not offer to give any doses at all to Europe, which is in the grip of shortages.
The EU is taken aback by the proposal, as so far it has opposed the liberalization of patents at the WTO: the leaders of the 27, not all present in person in Portugal (Angela Merkel, the Dutch Mark Rutte and Malta’s Robert Abela joined by video link), tried to reach a common position on Friday over dinner, in view of Saturday’s video-summit with India, which has been asking for the suspension of patents for months.
Germany is very skeptical, while Emmanuel Macron emphasized that he had defended from the start the idea of the vaccine as a “common good” and had asked “the Anglo-Saxons” to allow exports. He has the support of Mario Draghi, even if for the moment this position has not translated into any groundbreaking initiative like Biden’s. The president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, underlined that the current problem was to increase the production capacity in terms of doses, and that the EU “should be open to this discussion,” but that “the IP waiver will not solve the problems, will not bring a single dose of vaccine in the short and medium term.”
The Commissioner for the Internal Market stressed that a liberalization of patents would see production begin in a year to 14 months, so no sooner than next year, while Europe would be able to increase production in its own factories by that time, which is an aspect worth taking into account.
On the social level, COVID has been a disaster. At the Social Summit, Portugal, now holding the presidency, always the poor relative among the countries of the bloc, was back in the spotlight and put its weight behind the issue. The world is very different now from how it looked at the time of the Gothenburg summit in 2017. In European societies, the demand for protection is more prominent, and not only for vaccines: a social Europe is important for 9 out of 10 citizens. Inequalities have been exacerbated by COVID.
“The first question that we ask all governments is to guarantee that the emergency measures do not end until there is an economic recovery and new jobs are created,” was the message delivered in Porto by Luca Visentini, at the head of the European Trade Union Confederation.
In the final declaration after the first day of discussions in Porto, the 27 member countries are “committed to reducing inequalities, defending fair wages, fighting social exclusion and tackling poverty.” The Commission proposed three objectives for 2030: to raise the employment rate to 78% (it was 73% in 2019), to ensure 60% of workers are offered continuous training (today the number stands at 40%), to facilitate the green and digital transition through NextGenerationEu, to reduce the number of people living in poverty by 15 million (91 million today, including 20 million children). There is also the EASE program, an initiative to support work retraining to get out of the post-Covid crisis, which in a first phase resulted in SURE, a €100 billion program (of which €90 billion have already been spent) that helped pay the wages of 40 million employees in the private sector who could not work because of COVID.
However, the Commission’s proposal on a minimum wage in the 27 EU countries ran into opposition. At the moment, this exists only in some of the countries, and the proposal aims at encouraging greater convergence in the long term. France, Spain, Portugal and even Italy, which does not have a minimum wage, are in favor. On the other hand, Denmark, Sweden and Austria have strong reservations, as they have a tradition of union negotiations and do not want the final say on wages to depend on the European Court of Justice. The Eastern countries are against this as well, not wanting to lose the competitive advantage of low wages, which attract investment.
Obviously, the Commission is not proposing one and the same minimum wage for all the 27 member states, but that all should respect the principle of an overall minimum wage not less than 60% of the median wage of the country, which is different from the average wage, representing the number that half of the wages are above and half are below.
The difficulty of advancing the cause of a social Europe is illustrated by the negative example of the Brussels proposal to have at least 40% women on company boards: this has been on the table since 2012, but 8 countries are still blocking it.