Notes From the Margins…

Ursula in Blunderland

  • January 31, 2021
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At first sight, the government of a country that has just reached the grim figure of 100,000 covid-related deaths and the third highest per capita covid death rate in the world shouldn’t have much to celebrate.  Yet a poll this week suggests that  Johnson and his cabinet-of-the-damned have gained four points, bringing its potential vote to 41 percent.

The main reason for this is the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine program, which unlike most of what the government has done these last twelve months, is moving forward successfully, and has left its European neighbours far behind.

This week Johnson has also received a further boost, thanks to the shambolic response of the European Commission to its botched vaccination roll out.  In the space of a few days the  EU has announced that it will block exports of vaccines to ‘third countries’, including the U.K, and the Commission then announced yesterday that it would triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, effectively imposing a trade border with the Republic of Ireland.

These gambits have been widely-criticised, and  they have given Johnson and his cronies an unusual taste of the moral high ground.  The origins of this dispute stem from the decision by the European Commission to take  control of the EU’s vaccination procurement effort in June, rather than leave it to individual states to do their own procurement.

Whereas the UK had confirmed orders for both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines by June, the EU did not secure its contract with Astrazeneca until mid-August, and the Pfizer contract until November.  The vaccine rollout was further delayed by the slow administrative process, which required input from each individual member state before vaccines could be approved.

It was not unreasonable in itself for the Commission to take overall control of the rollout program, because individual state procurement could have resulted in ‘vaccine nationalism’ and lack of coordination between member states.

In the end the EU signed vaccine contracts worth 2.9 billion euros.   But frustration at the slow procurement and approval process has now been compounded by a series of disastrous setbacks.  First the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNtech announced that would not be supplying the agreed amounts their vaccines.

Now AstraZeneca has said that it will only be able to deliver 30 million of a promised 80 million doses of its vaccine by March, due to production problems at its Brussels manufacturers.

The EU has accused these companies of reneging on their agreements, which may be true, but there also seems to have been some naivete in the way the contracts were negotiated, which allowed them to look for loopholes, for reasons which are not yet clear.  In any case the EU did itself no favours when it demanded that the UK hand over supplies of vaccines produced by AstraZeneca, on the grounds that the UK’s plants belonged to the same company.

On a purely technical level, this might not be an unreasonable assumption.  But the political optics are terrible, and they were made even worse by the Commission’s out-of-the-blue decision to invoke Article 16, after five years of warning of the dangers of a hard Irish border.  These hamfisted attempts at vaccine diplomacy  have not exactly covered the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her team in glory.  According to Der Spiegel, von der Leyen has a history of poor leadership, and an equally poor record of  unaccountability.

Given the behaviour of our own government, it’s probably not a good idea to linger too much on how a person like that got the job of Commission President. But von der Leyen’s ineptness also has wider implications for the global response to the pandemic. It is utterly and wearyingly predictable that the Brexit press and an army of social media commentators  are absolutely revelling in all this and hailing the UK’s vaccine roll out as a retrospective vindication of Brexit and even a kind of ‘Falklands moment’ for the government (go figure).

Today the Mail on Sunday was citing the row as proof that ‘the nation state, with its lasting common interests, its short lines of communication, its existing structures of experience and co-ordination, its single language and law’ will always do better than transnational entities like ‘the lumbering EU monster’.

The UK’s death toll was not mentioned in that juxtaposition, but no one would it expect it to be. But it really does take the absolute dog biscuit to find Brexiters waxing indignant about the EU’s threat to the Good Friday agreement, but that is what they’re like and they can’t be tamed.

Never mind that they ignored these warnings for five years.  Never mind that Johnson himself has threatened to trigger Article 16.  Never mind that the UK could have done what it did as a member of the EU, and that the EU might have rolled out its vaccine procurement program more successfully if the UK had been a member, which also would have benefitted the UK.   Never mind all that. For the Brexiters, Brexit can’t be considered a success until the EU collapses, and if the pandemic helps to achieve that, then that will be a happy ending for them.

Personally I don’t think this will happen.  The EU’s vaccines will eventually appear, and Ireland does not appear to see the Article 16 fiasco as a lethal blow to its relations with the EU, even if Brexiters would like to believe that. But there is no doubt that von der Leyen and her team have committed a series of damaging errors, and unless it can recover from them, many Europeans will lose faith in the European project.

Beyond its implications for the European project, the UK-EU standoff raises serious questions about the global management of the pandemic and the dangers of ‘vaccine diplomacy.’   Brexiters might regard the vaccination ‘race’ as a test of national expertise, and revel in the fact that its European neighbors have not yet made it out of the vaccination world cup qualifying groups, but it won’t be much use if the UK achieves its vaccination targets and its neighbours don’t – unless we intend to cut all ties with the continent.

And these disputes between rich countries over vaccine access and procurement also ignore the global disparity between rich and poor countries.  Even if – or rather when – Europe and the UK manage to successfully inoculate their populations, the pandemic will not be eliminated until the whole world is vaccinated.

That is an awesome challenge, and it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to point out that there needs to be international coordination and collaboration  in order to mobilise vaccine production, maximise vaccine access, and turn vaccines into a common social good.

If this doesn’t happen, the world faces the impossible anomaly of post-covid societies coexisting with covid-ridden zones in which the virus continues to run rampant, or which are inoculated with inferior vaccines that maximise the possibility of mutant variants.

That is a lose-lose situation.  No wonder the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that the world is ‘on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure’ because of the global disparities in vaccine access and provision, and the ongoing hoarding by rich countries

The EU has been just as guilty of this as the UK and the US, and it will get us nowhere.  Because Covid, like climate change, is a global threat, that requires countries to act in tandem in their common interests, and to recognise that altruism is also self-interest.

Like so many of the world’s problems it demands that we think globally and act locally – and also unselfishly. That is not what we’ve been seeing over the last week.  No one expects to see it from Brexiters, but the EU – at least according to its own self-image – ought to do better and act in accordance with the values that it supposedly represents.

Otherwise we will slip into a global pandemic response that merely mirrors the gross inequalities that already undermine our attempts to respond to climate change.  We need coordination, fairness, justice – including the suspension of intellectual property rights so that generic manufacturers can make their own affordable vaccines.  The sooner we get all this the better, because contrary to what Brexiters are now saying, these ongoing ‘vaccine wars’ are  not an argument against international cooperation and collaboration, but another argument in favour of both.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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