by Frank Schnittger
Sat Jan 30th, 2021 at 02:05:42 PM EST
The already difficult relations between the UK and EU threatened to turn poisonous when the European Commission tried to invoke Article 16 of the Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement to prevent EU made vaccines being exported to the UK through the "backdoor" of Northern Ireland.
This went against years of EU and Irish diplomacy which has sought to prevent the emergence of a hard land border within Ireland. How the Commission could have made such a decision without consulting the Irish government on its political ramifications is beyond belief.
The now aborted move to invoke Article 16 exposes the degree of anger and vulnerability felt within the Commission at it being seen to be responsible for the EU's slower vaccination program than those in the UK, Israel and US, in particular. But as often the case in these crises, the real story is a lot more complex and nuanced.
The first thing to be said is that the UK rushed through its vaccine approval process and presented its earlier approval of the Pfizer vaccine in starkly political and nationalist terms: Britain was the first to approve the vaccine because it was a "better country" than all its European neighbours and had the best scientists and least bureaucratic approval process, if its Ministers where to be believed.
One can only imagine the reaction to this hubris in Brussels and EU member states who had given the Commission the lead role in the vaccine procurement process even though the Commission has very limited competency in healthcare generally. It played into pre-existing British narratives of the Commission being a sclerotic bureaucracy obsessed with regulation and red tape.
Had the European Medicines Agency's more thorough vaccine vetting and approval process revealed some flaws in vaccine efficacy, or some serious side effects resulting in it being risky for some demographics, the EU's more measured approach would have been seen as perspicacious and wise. With vaccination scepticism and unwillingness to be vaccinated widespread in some states, an abundance of caution in authorising the vaccines is perhaps justifiable, even in the midst of a raging pandemic.
But that is not how events transpired: two vaccines have now been found to be efficacious and safe, and the UK's earlier approval has given it a head start in its vaccination programme, with over 10% of its population vaccinated, while the EU average is closer to 2.5%. UK infection and death rates may still be the third worst in the world, behind only Belgium and Slovenia, but the Johnson regime now has something to crow about, and has been not been slow to do so.
The irony, from an EU point of view, is that the UK head start was only made possible by the early development of the Biontech Pfizer vaccine which was designed, developed and manufactured within the EU and then exported to the UK. This has not prevented the UK from hailing it as a "British" success story.
Matters came to a head this week when AstraZeneca, known as an Anglo-Swedish company, despite being effectively managed from Britain, announced that it would be cutting its deliveries to the EU by 60%, despite honouring its contractual obligations to the UK government in full.
AstraZeneca claimed that the UK had approved its supply contract three months before the EU, and was therefore entitled to get its deliveries first. The EU counterclaimed that's its contract with Astra Zeneca specified supplies from all four production plants (two of which are in the UK) and that they had been assured that Astra Zeneca had no conflicting contractual obligations which might prevent it fulfilling its contract in full. The EU can also claim that some mistakes in AstraZeneca's trial process and communications reduced its confidence in their vaccine, delayed the approval process, and led it to also prioritise other vaccine candidates.
With exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the UK to the EU effectively barred, the EU has now retaliated by threatening to bar exports of the Pfizer vaccine from the EU to the UK. All fair and reasonable you might think: it should be no more controversial to export UK manufactured vaccines from the UK to the EU, than the other way around. It is, however, rather an unedifying spectacle to see two rich power blocs vying for supplies while most of the third world is left with none.
The Chief Executive of Trocaire (an Irish Aid Agency) has published a letter noting that their medical personal in Ethiopia have no prospect of being vaccinated this year, and the WHO had advised that front-line medical personnel and high risk demographics throughout the world should be vaccinated first, before the general population at lower risk of fatal consequences.
Fat chance of that happening, given the increasingly nationalistic tone of "vaccine politics," despite the fact that even countries clear of the virus run the risk of continual re-infection from high infection zones so long as the virus is rampant anywhere. Mutant variants of the virus which may be immune or resistant to existing vaccines, also have a much greater chance of emerging if the virus is still prevalent in other populations.
A fully objective case can be made that Astra Zeneca's output should be prioritised for high risk medical personnel and older demographics in the EU before it is rolled out to the general population in the UK. But that is not how this row is being portrayed: It has been a godsend for Brexiteers in the UK to crow at their superior processes in post Brexit UK, and I have personally been jeered by Brexiteers in the UK that their elderly relatives have been vaccinated long before mine in Ireland.
But the Commission threat to invoke Article 16 of the Ireland Protocol was a step too far. In the first place, N. Ireland is getting its vaccine supplies through Britain, and not the other way around. In the second place, the EU has already agreed "trusted trader" schemes with British supermarket chains supplying N. Ireland ensuring that their deliveries don't leak across the border into Ireland bypassing Customs Union and Single Market controls. It should not be too difficult to institute a similar scheme for pharmaceutical companies to ensure their consignments are destined only for the Irish public health authorities - the only legitimate customer for Covid Vaccines in Ireland at the moment.
Instead, the Commission threat, now hastily withdrawn, gave N. Ireland Unionists and British Government ministers something legitimate to complain about, and they have not been slow to express their outrage. Hard line loyalists have been pressing the UK Government to invoke Article 16 in order to frustrate the operation of the Ireland protocol, and now the Commission has almost handed them a precedent to validate their claims.
DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, has branded the EU decision to trigger Article 16 of Brexit's NI Protocol 'incredible act of hostility' and even Sinn Fein and Irish Government sources have reacted with embarrassment and dismay. It is being presented as an attempt to prevent N. Ireland receiving any vaccines from EU sources, and has handed the UK a propaganda victory at a time it has little else to crow about.
Even before this latest controversy erupted, Finn McRedmond had a story up in the Irish Times arguing that the Vaccine war is Johnson's chance to rewrite the Brexit narrative, and that major historical events are judged on their outcomes, not on details or processes. In her view Boris' Johnson's response to the Covid crisis could yet be seen as a national post Brexit triumph, despite all the objective evidence to the contrary.
Having hardly put a foot wrong in its Brexit negotiations, the Commission may be guilty of some missteps on its Covid response, at the very least from a political and public relations point of view, which has played into existing Brexiteer narratives about the EU and given them an important propaganda victory. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it would not have happened had Michel Barnier been in charge of the Commission's Covid response.