Selmayr: How is it possible to fall for Sputnik propaganda?

Evelyn Kaldoja
, välisuudiste toimetuse juhataja
Some in Europe are sometimes too impressed by the propaganda of autocratic countries, Martin Selmayr, head of the EU Commission Representation in Vienna, says.
Some in Europe are sometimes too impressed by the propaganda of autocratic countries, Martin Selmayr, head of the EU Commission Representation in Vienna, says. Photo: Mattias Tammet/Vpk

Some in Europe are sometimes too impressed by the propaganda of autocratic countries, Martin Selmayr, head of the EU Commission Representation in Vienna, says when commenting on countries’ plans to procure Chinese or Russian vaccines.

Selmayr recommends looking at statistics of how many locals Russia has managed to immunize. Freely available materials show that the EU has not only been more successful at vaccinating its citizens but is also a strong global vaccine exporter.

To what extent has the fact we have been confined to our own countries because of Covid changed Europe?

It has not changed Europe as much as it has changed every one of us individually. Our entire way of seeing the world has changed, how we value life. I can see it in the streets of Vienna. People going to the restaurant and smiling, not yelling at the waiter and instead being glad someone is bringing them their food.

I do not think it will last for very long, but we have learned the value of social human contact.

We have also learned a lesson about the environment. I believe many have realized we are not living sustainably. The pandemic is no accident. It is the result of humans’ handling of nature, animals, our environment.

People have also become more digitally aware. Not Estonians, as they have always been tech-savvy. But while most European agencies had everything that they needed to hold video conferences before, the equipment had never been used.

Normally, I used to visit my parents once a month. Now, I speak to them every weekend – our contacts have become more frequent, as I’m sure is the case for everyone else as people are worried for their families. They use video calling technology on their iPhones, like Estonians.

The crisis has brought out a lot of bad in people – as crises are wont to do – but also a lot of good some time later. At first, countries closed their borders. Then, they realized that they depend on one another, cooperated and agreed on solidarity and joint efforts for vaccination and economic recovery. In the end, it was a good lesson of just how mutually dependent we are. And those who used to doubt the EU now say that if it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.

I believe that people have indeed drawn that conclusion and are ready to move on, for example, to a healthcare union (currently, most public health competency still rests with member states and not Brussels – E. K.)?

I would be more nuanced here. What does it mean to have a healthcare union? The crisis has shown that neither a centralized or decentralized solution is best in health matters and that it depends on the situation.

Whether to close schools in southern Austria or in Tartu is best decided on location, not in Brussels. But when you’re buying enough vaccine for an entire continent and to share with the rest of the world, you should probably do it in a centralized manner. In terms of economic recovery, while everyone could do that independently, we would probably get a lot of distortion and fragmentation that way. If we do it together as a joint effort, we are protecting our common market and making it work.

Some cases require more joint solutions and it seems to me that we have found them – when it comes to recovery and vaccines. In others, we need decentralized solutions, and even countries with a more federal structure, like Austria or Germany, have done quite well.

I do not believe talk of China or Russia being the best. I believe that our democratic and pluralist system, with just the right amount of centralization where it is needed and decentralization where it is possible has done quite well in this crisis.

Should we amend the founding treaties and give Brussels – the European Commission – more power to react faster and more effectively next time a pandemic hits?

Constitutions and treaties should only be amended if it is necessary. But it should also never be ruled out. That said, I see no problem in managing this crisis that would require us to change the treaties.

It is mainly a question of joint will. And in many ways, we have already changed the treaties. The common EU recovery fund is a new decision by the 27 member states to be ratified by all 27 national parliaments. A lawyer would call that amending the treaty.

On the other hand, should we solve all healthcare matters in Brussels? No. For reasons already mentioned. We could perhaps use a crisis mechanism that could be launched temporarily to centralize decision-making in the hands of a more effective body for a few months during the beginning of the crisis. There could be an EU crisis committee. But that would not require us to change the treaties.

We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The EU has worked well if political will can be found in all 27 member states. Joint procurement of vaccines was not mandated from Brussels but a voluntary decision from all 27 member states. Every country could have procured its own vaccines. There was no demand to do it together. We did it because it is more effective and because we want to maintain our common market that is one of the strongest aspects of the EU. We learned a good lesson of what works well and that joint political will is the best tool in a crisis.

We even successfully developed vaccines in Europe, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that is the most modern vaccine in the world.

What did the EU miss in a situation where Israel managed to procure large quantities of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine developed in Europe, the Americans and Brits launched vaccination sooner and the Russians managed to advertise their vaccine sooner, even though there is more of it in propaganda than in production?

These are all different cases. Israel is a relatively small country that is very digital and has been living in the shadow of war for a long time, meaning its population is far better mobilized. Their prime minister was also under pressure at the time and had to demonstrate strength.

USA got off to a better start, while we are catching up now. The Americans reached 50 percent vaccination coverage but might not get to 70 percent because a lot of people are skeptical of vaccines. There are over five million people in the U.S. who did not show up for their second vaccine shot. This is not the case in Europe, at least not to a similar extent. Europeans know that while it took us longer to get going, the vaccines we procured are safe. We did not take any risks. It took longer – the European Medicines Agency’s process was thorough – but the level of trust is also higher.

Looking back later this summer, we may find that the EU is closer to herd immunity than any other continent. We will likely be the first place where everyone is vaccinated, alongside USA.

Let us also not forget that the EU has done something others haven’t – we have shared vaccines with the rest of the world.

We did not lay down export bans or a “Europe first” policy. Not because we are naive idealists but because we know that the pandemic won’t end until the virus is rooted out from our region and neighboring countries. The virus could mutate.

We may be four weeks behind the fastest movers, while we are much faster than the rest of the world.

Ask the Canadians where they get their vaccines. Normally, they would get them from USA. But the States went for the “America first” policy, which is why the Canadians bought their vaccines from the EU. We welcomed the Canadians because we are tied through a free trade agreement. Sharing [vaccines] is a good decision the EU will be taking forward. It was decided at the previous European Council to export millions of doses all over the world.

To what extent was the AstraZeneca case tied to Brexit?

I do not think it had much to do with Brexit. The main problem was that the EU had many partners for buying vaccines, and a year ago, most experts would have deemed AstraZeneca the likeliest to succeed and said that who knows whether the new mRNA technology will work. Surprisingly, the reality was just the opposite.

It was also surprising that AstraZeneca failed to fulfill its contractual obligations The European Commission sued the company. The court must now decide whether AstraZeneca’s conduct was just. AstraZeneca did not develop the vaccine on its own or with support only from the United Kingdom. There was a lot of EU funding. A closer look reveals that there was more EU than UK research and development money involved. The case should not change the fact that the vaccine is safe and thoroughly studied, while there were manufacturing and supply problems.

Market economy rewards those who do a better job, and it was not AstraZeneca in this case.

Austria was one of the countries that threatened to buy Sputnik V. How did you feel upon learning some EU member states were planning to procure Chinese and Russian vaccines of questionable quality?

Some in Europe are sometimes too impressed by the propaganda of autocratic countries.

We can quite transparently compare ourselves to the rest of the world today. Everyone can see how many people the Russians have vaccinated. It is not even one-third of what the EU has managed.

How many doses of Sputnik are out there? It may be a good vaccine or it may not be, but it is clear that it cannot help us here in Europe. How can we possibly fall for that kind of propaganda?

We should have a little more confidence and should not read every social media message coming from fake accounts saying things that just aren’t true.

As Europeans, we should believe in things that are made here and our successful products approved by EMA. Every vaccine manufacturer can get an EMA permit if they present all the necessary documentation and allow their product to be tested. This has not happened for Sputnik. Not because of EMA, but because documentation has not been sent in.

As Europeans, we do not just have enough vaccine for ourselves but can also help the rest of the world. We export almost as many vaccines as we keep for our own people. Therefore, why should we believe the propaganda of third countries?

Translation by Marcus Turovski