The EU’s attempt to block vaccine supplies into Northern Ireland last year is clearly still a sensitive subject.
Anyone referring to the incident can expect to be sharply reminded that Article 16 was never formally triggered.
This is a poor excuse. There was no formal trigger because the European Commission advised unilateral action, bypassing the protocol’s consultation mechanism. Had the Irish and British governments not spotted this and protested, the process would have gone ahead.
Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly made a pointed reference on Sunday to the vaccine debacle. Kelly is lead author of draft EU legislation defining how Brussels will retaliate to the British government’s bill disapplying the protocol.
In addition to showing London “we’re not bluffing”, Kelly said the legislation will prevent another vaccine-type “gaffe”.
Yet for all its embarrassment, the EU is fortunate this gaffe is what people remember. It distracts from a far larger and more disturbing story.
The move to block vaccines into Northern Ireland was a bureaucratic tidying-up exercise on vaccine export restrictions introduced across the EU in January 2021.
The World Health Organisation denounced these controls as “vaccine nationalism” but this had been expected everywhere and was built into the plans of many countries. What made the EU’s protectionism uniquely perverse was demanding preferential supplies of a vaccine its member states were defaming as ineffective and unsafe.
Brussels claimed its contract with AstraZeneca required it to be supplied ahead of the UK. The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm said its contracts specified the reverse. As this dispute rumbled on, the German government briefed that the vaccine was only 8 per cent effective in the over-65 and French president Emmanuel Macron repeated the mistaken claim openly.
Numerous member states then banned the vaccine for several months, despite the European Medicines Agency approving it. In February 2021, Angela Merkel said she would not take it. Further precautionary bans followed in March after the EMA warned of blood clotting.
That warning, while highly cautious, was at least based on science.
Everything else was based on Brexit. The UK had taken an early lead on vaccination by using AstraZeneca. Prime minister Boris Johnson had falsely claimed this was made possible by leaving the EU. Brussels, Paris and Berlin seemed driven mad by both the UK’s success and Johnson’s gloating. The EU began claiming only the double-jabbed were vaccinated, so it was really “winning”.
Encouraging vaccine hesitancy in their populations, especially the over-65s, was disastrous for France and worse still for Germany, where nearly all Covid deaths occurred in early 2021. The French were already inclined to vaccine resistance, while Germans were inclined to hold out for Pfizer’s technically superior German product. AstraZeneca had developed its vaccine to be cheap and easily stored, for distribution to lower-income countries. Many such countries rejected it as the EU trashed its reputation.
The European politicians who cast doubt on AstraZeneca “probably killed hundreds of thousands of people”, according to Canadian immunologist Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford, speaking to the BBC earlier this year.
Their actions were as grotesque as the negligence of Donald Trump or the irresponsibility of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, for even pettier and more petulant reasons.
Yet what is mostly recalled today, certainly in this part of the world, is that the Brexit-induced insanity hit a bump on the Irish border.
Traumatic events and episodes of mass hysteria are often followed by unspoken pacts of forgetting. However, there are lessons from 2021 that are important to learn for a realistic perspective on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Brexit has tapped into a deep well of dislike for Britain on the Continent, much deeper than mere contempt for Johnson can explain. The UK was protected from this by EU membership, ironically, and Brussels did not initiate the attempt to undermine the UK’s vaccination programme. But it was quickly drawn into it by member states.
Brussels is intoxicated by the sudden sense of EU nationalism that Brexit has helped to crystallise, just as the UK is defining an otherwise aimless Brexit in opposition to the EU.
This is going to be a relationship of rivals, not partners. The pandemic was hopefully an extreme illustration but any challenge will bring out the competitive instinct, even where common interests should override it, as the Ukraine war is demonstrating.
Only a minimal protocol is sustainable under these circumstances. Controversies cannot endlessly be managed by committee: they need to be stripped out of the basic design. The proposals in the UK bill point to a solution, even if the tactic of the bill is part of the problem.
The Republic’s political class needs to consider if devotion to EU nationalism is always in Ireland’s interests. It is painfully apparent from Northern Ireland that both sides can be as bad as each other.