The EU and vaccines: a marriage made in hell

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Image Description: three syringes with colourful liquid inside, in front of a flag of the EU.

Vaccines! Our saving grace! Well…maybe not for the European Union. In light of a more protracted approval process when it came to the candidate vaccines themselves, and the recent spat with AstraZeneca, the EU as a whole is far behind on the vaccination curve. To put things into context here, according to data collated by ‘Our World in Data’ at the Oxford Martin School, as of the end of January 2021 the EU as a whole had administered 2.86 vaccines per 100 people, slightly above France at 2.35, but far behind the US on 9.40, the UK on 14.42 and the UAE on 33.71

This failure to rapidly ramp up vaccinations has led to the EU having to point fingers – first and foremost at AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of the vaccine designed by the University of Oxford. Towards the end of January, AstraZeneca notified the EU that initial volumes of the vaccine would be significantly lower than first expected, and that they therefore wouldn’t be able to deliver the headline figure of 100 million doses in the first quarter of 2021. Vaccine deliveries to the UK, however, would be unaffected. 

This was a miscalculation of Herculean proportions.

It’s at that point that this disagreement was made public. The EU’s Health Commissioner stressed that vaccines produced in UK plants must be sent to the EU to fulfill contractual obligations, something AstraZeneca strongly retaliated against. After much toing and froing, both sides agreed to publish the contract which underpins vaccine deliveries. Whilst the published contract did clarify that UK plants are considered part of the EU supply chain, it did not explain whether this means that said plants must be used to fulfill obligations. It also did not concretely state that the EU’s agreement had any precedence over the agreement between AstraZeneca and the UK.

The EU then decided to throw its toys out of the pram, asking for vaccine manufacturers to declare if they plan to export vaccines. More specifically, it started requiring national authorities to be informed of how many vaccines, when and to whom they plan to export them, allowing the EU to bring in a de facto export ban on vaccines. The issue here is the Northern Irish Protocol, which is the part of the Brexit deal which covers the island of Ireland. In the Northern Irish Protocol, it is clear that there is to be no export control between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

Consequently, the EU deemed it necessary to threaten to trigger Article 16 of the very same protocol. The triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol means effectively ‘suspending’ completely frictionless trade on the island of Ireland. This was a miscalculation of Herculean proportions: the EU had the opportunity to respond to those concerned with its handling of the vaccine roll-out, but instead managed to divert attention towards an even greater failing on its part. Throwing Northern Ireland under the bus has united the staunchest defenders of the European project, and the most fervent of sceptics of Von der Leyen and her Commission. It is almost contradictory of the EU to claim to have the interests of peace and prosperity of Ireland at heart, and subsequently try to impose a hard border between Ireland and the UK. 

The EU’s handling of the vaccination rollout, and the subsequent events that followed, will leave a substantial blemish on its reputation

The EU amassed major political capital with respect to Ireland, during the Brexit negotiations. Ireland is, in quantitative terms, a minor member of the EU. It represents a very small fraction of both its population and overall economy. Yet, the EU was clear in the Brexit negotiations that the issue of the Northern Irish border had to be resolved alongside the issues of citizens rights, before any discussions on the future relationship with the UK could take place. The EU could have acted differently; it could have allowed the issue to be resolved after a free trade agreement (FTA) was put in place. By making an FTA conditional on resolving the border peacefully, it showed to the world just how strongly it supports ideals of peace and prosperity. Yet, its most recent moves in relation to Ireland point to this being a mere facade. 

Had they not rowed back on their decision there would have been severe irreparable damage, not only to the EU’s image, but to the very fabric of the island of Ireland. No one, on either side, would have wished to see even a slight return to the events surrounding the Troubles. 

According to some, threatening to trigger Article 16 was not led by Ireland, nor the United Kingdom, nor the EU’s own UK Task Force, headed by Michel Barnier. Which begs the question: who actually knew about the move and who, ultimately, signed off on it? 

Even the most Europhilic among us must agree that the EU’s handling of the vaccination rollout, and the subsequent events that followed, will leave a substantial blemish on its reputation. I am a proud European, but when failures on this scale have been made, I cannot stand idly by. The EU and vaccines are a marriage made in hell and, for the sake of the children, something needs to be done.

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