The EU Commission has negotiated a settlement with EU states to distribute scarce vaccines in the Corona pandemic. This agreement was reached long before there was any vaccine on the market. The outcome of the negotiations provided for a distribution of vaccine doses according to population keys and fulfilled all aspects of a classic interest-based negotiated settlement:

  • The solution is reasonable and in line with the principle of solidarity in the EU.
  • The EU has appeared “strong” to the outside world, as a large buyer and representative of 27 nation-states, to obtain better prices due to the quantity purchased.
  • The solution is, due to the criterion of the population key, fair for all member states.
  • The solution is long-term: if not all EU citizens are vaccinated, neither the economy will recover quickly, nor can freedom of travel within the EU be possible.
  • Overall, the EU reserved (or bought) much more vaccine than the population said it needed, presumably to spread the risk widely, since, at the time of the trial, not a single vaccine had been licensed in the EU then.
  • All EU citizens should receive a vaccination offer, and surplus vaccines should be redistributed internationally.

In principle, everyone could be satisfied. But as you can see in this case, the devil is in the detail.

Austria included some countries that had focused on their local interests when they ordered vaccines locally from the EU, despite a previously agreed distribution key. They have made an independent decision to call for fewer individual supplies than they would have been entitled to the joint plan.

Overall – without the risk of deliverability – the bill would probably have worked out, and individual countries could have immunised their populations with the cheaper vaccine. Still, history has taught us that the risk variant of the plan went thoroughly wrong. The result was that other countries, following the rules, bought up the different vaccine available.

After the risk of deliverability materialised, a very clever interest-based solution at the highest EU level resulted in an outcome that produced clear winners and losers and dissatisfaction among the countries that “speculated”. At the same time, countries that took the opportunity to purchase additional vaccine, which brought them more vaccine than they were entitled to, according to the key, understandably reacted “unfriendly”.  

The subsequent attempts to redress the imbalance that had arisen or the mistakes made – to the detriment of the supposed winners – left their mark on all participants. The emotional upset between the negotiators was also clearly visible to outside observers and has probably permanently damaged the basis for talks between the negotiators. Many sides now feel they have been treated “unfairly”. Not to mention the damaged reputation of individual countries and their chief negotiators.

What could have been done better in terms of negotiating tactics?

  • The original distribution key should have been secured not to have been possible to “opt-out”.
  • Poorer countries for which the vaccine is too expensive should find a solution that would have been acceptable to all sides based on the solidarity principle and the other EU states via options.
  • In the sense of the solidarity principle, the individual countries should have decided independently favouring the standard solution. They should have refrained from going it alone locally, or the EU should have prevented (sanctioned) any “slippage” from the distribution key.

For win-win negotiators, we make the following recommendations:

  • Interest-based outcomes are more recommendable in the long term than short-term compromises.
  • Suppose a solution is reached in a complex negotiation situation. In that case, it must also be formulated in writing so that it is clear to all negotiating partners within which limits you can move and what it costs to cross the limits. As higher the risk, the more “expensive” the boundary-crossing should be.
  • When a solution becomes difficult, it makes sense to jointly seek options that satisfy the interests of both (all) sides instead of making quick compromises alone.
  • Risk is a part of every negotiation. If there is no relationship of trust between the negotiating partners, the risk that arises should be hedged accordingly.