The Great Vaccine Wars of 2021

You are probably familiar with recent tensions around the availability of vaccines and the EU’s attempts to secure supply. Those of you who spent Friday night having a hard-earned glass of wine and watching a movie, before sleeping in on Saturday (and why not) might well have missed quite a significant diplomatic incident that came and went over the course of about 12 hours.

If you did miss it, the EU chose to invoke ‘Article 16’ only to then make an immediate U-turn. As we are all aware, the Northern Ireland question dogged the Brexit negotiations and was eventually resolved with Northern Ireland having, in practical terms, EU and UK status. Article 16 gives either side the ability to unilaterally remove this unique status from Northern Ireland. If triggered, it would lead to a requirement for border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Article 16 was only intended for use when the current protocol led to “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and when a joint solution could not be found.

The reason behind the EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 was to stop the supply of vaccines leaving the European Union. Imposing this in Northern Ireland is an incredibly volatile issue. Ultimately this looked like it was related to the ongoing row with Astra Zeneca and the UK around diverting vaccines planned for the UK back to EU states. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has received much criticism over the EU’s approach to vaccines. Both the insistence that EU countries work as a block and her slowness in securing supply has come under attack from several EU states, including allies of Angela Merkel.

The EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 late on Friday night was met with shock and anger from most parts, not least the Republic of Ireland and Westminster. The reaction led to the EU reversing the decision almost immediately, putting everything back to normal by Saturday breakfast time. The Commission has subsequently claimed that Article 16 was triggered ‘by mistake’.

Rather than dwell arguments around the UK’s ‘moral duty’ to relinquish some supply to the EU and the unholy mess the EU has made of the vaccination process. I would rather look at what this tells us about the current EU-UK relations.

First and foremost, this is not a positive sign for future relationships. It is not clear as to whether diplomatic solutions had been exhausted before Article 16 was triggered. What has been clear throughout all this is that there is little or no sense of collaboration between the UK and the EU. Rather than approach the UK and seek their support to increase the vaccine supply, the EU chose to try and use of formal regulatory steps. This has been portrayed as an attempt to ‘seize control’ of the existing stock of vaccines.

The UK Government has been clear throughout – they acted quickly and made significant investment in the development and manufacture of vaccines to ensure that we would have sufficient supply for our population.  Therefore, all stocks currently intended for the UK should be shipped across. In truth, Downing Street leaders will be rubbing their hands in glee at this latest episode. Mainly as it highlights the EU’s fundamental flaw – that it is slow and bureaucratic. Alongside that, during the negotiations there were frequent noises from Brussels about whether or not a Boris Johnson led UK could be considered a ‘good faith operator’. This episode has posed questions about the EU’s reliability in times of crisis.

This episode has demonstrated the fragility of the existing arrangements. At its first real test the new arrangements in Northern Ireland came close to collapsing. Against this backdrop it is difficult to see a situation where the UK looks to work closely with the EU on issues such as trade and regulatory policy. The current level of distrust and general resentment on both sides will likely see the UK continuing to look away from the EU as the Government seeks to forge allies. Sunday’s announcement that the UK intends to apply to join the Asia-Pacific free trade pact is probably not a coincidence.

Given the fraught negotiations over the last four years and the subsequent level of distrust this has created on either side, it is unsurprising that there would exist a level of tension. This episode has exacerbated this and shone a spotlight on the current problems. The long-lasting impact is hard to judge, but at present it is difficult to see a future that is characterised by anything other than tension and mistrust.

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