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Incompetent, vindictive EU has validated Brexit

January 30, 2021

The unedifying spectacle of the world’s wealthiest countries squabbling over supplies of Covid vaccines will have one lasting-effect: it will validate Brexit in the minds of many British citizens.

It has been easy to criticise the UK government for its many obvious failings in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but its vaccine procurement and distribution programme is a shining light in that gloom.

By contrast, the European Union’s stumbling, tardy attempts to lead a continent-wide programme is a car crash. It certainly wasn’t helped when the French Pasteur Institute threw in the towel admitting it couldn’t produce an effective vaccine, leaving it with fewer EU-domiciled producers than it originally anticipated. But there is no excuse for the way it has behaved over the last week.

When the EU Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides (pictured above), pressed the panic button last weekend she started down the road that led to last night’s shambolic, humiliating volte face by the EU over Northern Ireland.

Any objective assessment of how and why the UK is doing so well and the EU so badly has to point the finger firmly at the EU’s procurement and approval processes. Kyriakides’ initial attempts to turn the blame onto AstraZeneca, with the implication that it was somehow favouring the UK over the EU when there are two separate contracts in place, were laced with threats that seemed out of place when facing the challenges of fighting a global pandemic.

EU President raised the temperature
Instead of pulling back from the heavy implications that the UK was getting more than its fair share of the vaccines, the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, encouraged that narrative, adding threats of export bans. She waved around a contract that she claimed gave her legal authority for such drastic actions. I am no lawyer, but if she seriously thinks phrases such as “Best Reasonable Efforts” give the EU the authority to behave in such a high-handed manner then I think she needs to get some better lawyers.

While EU leaders were falling over themselves to raise the temperature of the debate and politicise their procurement failings and contractual problems, the UK government wisely stood back. This was, after all, a commercial dispute.

Last night, the EU left Johnson, Northern Ireland political leaders and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin with no option but to step in. What was profoundly shocking was how, after years of Brexit negotiations rightly prioritising the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, the EU was prepared to jeopardise it the moment it suited them. Thank goodness sanity prevailed as midnight approached.

The EU has heaped humiliation on top of incompetence. If the Commission was a government, von der Leyen and Kyriakides would be facing calls to resign: Kyriakides should certainly go.

Wiser voices prevail
The source of those wiser voices that prevailed in Brussels last night might be a little surprising. Michel Barnier, no friend of the UK, was one of them. He spoke a lot of sense in an interview in The Times this morning.

Barnier: Injecting some sanity into the EU position

“We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis, which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere. And I believe that we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of one upmanship or unhealthy competition,” he says.

“I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us. This is the substance of my message today, because we are unfortunately going to have many chances in the coming years to show solidarity.

“Reciprocally. In the fight against terrorism, climate change, financial crises, disasters.”

This row will have a lasting effect on British attitudes to Brexit.

This clumsy, ill-thought out, vindictive move by the EU to deflect attention from its incompetence, has done more than Johnson, Gove and the Brexiters to advance the argument that the UK is better out of the EU than in it. Those soft Brexiters who might have been wondering whether they backed the right option in the 2016 referendum, are now thinking that a bit of chaos at the ports is a price worth paying if we continue to get our vaccination programme running ahead of almost the rest of the world, and far, far ahead of Europe.

The EU has ensured that opportunities to argue for the UK rejoining the EU will be fewer and the case much harder to make. This will have implications for the debate over Scottish independence too. The EU couldn’t have dealt Johnson a better hand if it tried.

From → Politics

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