Repeating the same mistakes, yet hoping for recovery

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

We’re in a vortex – and it feels like it’s never ending.

Recent vaccination campaigns kicking off across Europe brought with them a sense of relief after a year of uncertainty. Unfortunately, old hat politics and management came along for the ride.

The vaccine rollout across Europe is one of its biggest strategic challenges this year – so much hangs on it, from economic recovery to community stability. The stumbling and political disruption we witnessed last week hasn’t helped – nor has it inspired confidence in an already suspicious public.

In times of crises, agile leadership necessitates the ability to pause and understand how ones’ actions might be perceived. It requires being aware of the consequences of policy statements, of commitments under convention or law, and frankly, it requires an understanding of the public. All of this is sound stuff, but it isn’t rocket science – and it’s been sadly missing from the events of the last week.

Having secured a good deal on vaccines with pharma companies was a good first step. There’s no denying that. However, as most in government and industry know, any contract of goods and services can easily be subject to delivery problems – that’s just how it is. That’s why having an eye on the ball in contract management is key, especially when the stakes are so high.

These delays have turned into a political disaster

Shouldn’t last year have been the best learning ground for Europe’s leaders and decision-makers to adapt to managing multiple, complex and unpredictable policies, initiatives and events?

Yet, the potential to wreak havoc in the EU project is once again writ large. These delays have turned into a political disaster. One which could so easily have been averted with a bit of pause, reflection and critical evaluation, rather than jumping into well-worn and old-school political and communication fixes.

For member states that are negotiating their own complex and uncertain economic and political problems amidst a lockdown with agitated populations – the signs from EU institutions are not encouraging.

Following the events of last week, let alone the past year, citizens will be forgiven for thinking that their leaders continue to promise high and espouse great rhetoric but deliver poorly. What choice do they have?

Adding to this growing malaise of cynicism and dismay are the flash points of lockdown unrest which are spreading. The signal of this latent problem was evident last year, as was the potential of vaccine sovereignty. It appears the lack of solidarity amongst member states in the early stages of containing the pandemic is being displayed and repeated in the recovery process.

Our current political approaches simply aren’t fit for purpose anymore

There is still time to recover – no pun intended – from this poor political handling of the delivery and distribution of vaccines. The Commission needs to get a grip, channel some humanity and take bold action.

First, we need to see some effective, proactive and politically-savvy contract management. For that, they need geeky lawyerly and political oversight, as well as better programmatic management.

The Commission should pull together a major intra-institution war room focussed on combining an aggressive mass vaccination plan with recovery programmes developed by member states, which would enable them to eyeball each other, iron out differences and agree on expectations. It should be time limited to operate for the next 24 months, which are crucial for managing the ongoing and uncertain impact of the current pandemic, preparing for shocks from other virus variants, as well as working on climate impact and digital as drivers for seeding change.

Regular Council and Commission meetings aren’t going to make the cut – because our current political approaches simply aren’t fit for purpose anymore. Adopting an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset is going to be essential. That’s why politicians must surround themselves more with leaders outside of the institutions from the private and civil society sectors to add balance as well as check thinking and approaches to delivery in the coming years.

Perceptions are often more powerful than reality

Finally, and most critically, our political leaders need to pay better attention to the signals coming from the wider environment and the public. In an atmosphere in which citizens are increasingly finding it hard to distinguish truth from the propaganda, misinformation has become king. Insidious forces are milking these circumstances to manipulate citizen anxieties and seed further discontent and mistrust in order to shift attitudes further to an illiberal, nationalist and ‘me-first’ voter syndrome.

The Gamestop case might be an indication of other disruptive techniques that disaffected and disenfranchised citizens will use to correct what is perceived as vested interest and political mishandling.

Remember the old adage, perceptions are often more powerful than reality. This couldn’t be truer than in our current crisis-driven times wrought with uncertainty and the fundamental change people are experiencing daily in their lives.

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