The European Union is like a Bonaparte-era supra-national, multi-led and supersized army. It wins by using its bulk to crush opponents in the field.
The Greeks vote against loan conditions? Wait for them to crack; then impose tougher ones. The Danes throw out the Maastricht Treaty? Get them to vote again. The French reject the European Constitution? Drive it through anyway.
And, let’s face it, the EU won the Withdrawal Agreement negotiation twice over. First, by the legally dubious manoeuvre of seperating the withdrawal talks from trade talks. Second, by gaining trade barriers not between the UK and Ireland, but between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
But we have learned in this last week that the EU is not necessarily the victor when it must fight a different war altogether. When it must occupy a town, rather than defeat an army (in this case, by buying its way in). When it must move quickly, because it is fighting a war of movement rather than one of attrition.
The sum of the EU’s approach to obtaining anti-Covid 19 vaccines was that it haggled over price and indemnity – as France and Germany led a move by bigger countries to grab their own vaccines; the smaller ones fought back, and France used its weight to push Sanofi, which turned out to be slower than some of its competitors, as a provider.
Above all, it moved ponderously. Meanwhile, the UK was more agile, trading off price for bulk, grabbing as much supply as it could, and ensuring that as much as possible is manufactured in Britain. Take a bow, Matt Hancock, who insisted that Oxford scientists partner with Anglo-Swedish Astrazeneca.
The twin drivers of last week’s events abroad has been, among the elites, horror at the implications for the European project of Brexit Britain outperforming it (and during a pandemic, too); and, among the masses, anger at the EU’s shortcomings. One stark example of consequences stands out: five days ago, France, Spain and Portugal ran so short of supplies that vaccinations were part-suspended.
The EU’s response has been to heap up nonsenses. The AstraZeneca vaccine doesn’t work, but we want more of it. Our contract with the firm obliges more for us now, though the wording pledges only “reasonable best efforts”. Our quarrel is with the firm and not a country, but we may bar exports to the UK, and to it only.
We are against first come, first served and so for later come, first served – since someone must always be at the front of the queue. Above all, we are against a hard border on the island of Ireland…except when it suits us. Remember: this was the same more extensive UK-Ireland land border that the EU side of Withdrawal Agreement negotiating table argued was unworkable.
There will be at least three consequences of last week’s events, assuming that the AstraZeneca vaccine performs to order. The Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has declared that two full doses are 62 per cent effective. That is a relatively low success rate. And how it well it works en masse rather than in trials remains to be seen.
But the Government hasn’t put all its eggs in the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNtech baskets: it has spread its bets by getting in orders for products made by Valneva, Moderna, Noravax, Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson (which is bound to give rise to jokes about Johnson & Johnson & Johnson).
Ministers are particularly bullish about Valneva, on the ground that it will provide a basis for vaccination against future Coronavirus variants, which may help to explain why the Government has ordered doses for the years ahead up to 2025. So those consequences look set to apply as we write. They are these.
First that, although the EU is as formidable as ever when following its playbook, it is vulnerable when confronted by the unknown, and quick thinking and fast footwook are required. And black swans have a way of flying in. Its U-turn over a hard border in Ireland and a blockade of UK exports (an AstraZeneca Belgian plant was raided) marked a rare and public humiliation.
Second, there will be repercussions among member states, between them and the Commission – and even outside Europe altogether. The Biden administration will raise an eyebrow. Ursula Von Leyen’s leadership will be questioned closely. More broadly, member state economies are set to recover more slowly than the UK’s; fewer vaccinations will mean more deaths; voter resentment will rise.
Finally, both the political weight and moral standing of the EU will take a hit here. When as evangelical a former Remainer as Tony Blair describes its conduct as “unacceptable”, you know that the normal rules of politics have been turned upside-down. And by remaining exquisitely polite in public, Ministers have done nothing to impede the EU’s tumble downstairs.
If this assessment sounds a bit on the nationalistic side, that may be because “vaccine nationalism” is winning. Indeed, it is the gold medal victor of the last seven days. Britain’s deal with AstraZeneca was born out of Hancock’s fear of Trump administration nationalism. The EU wants its own citizens served first, wherever they are in the queue. The Government wants ours, who are at its front, to go first instead.
When death stalks with his scythe and lantern, people cower behind their national flags. We are as patriotic as the next man. But we don’t believe for a moment that it would suit Britain practically, let alone morally, for other countries to languish with vaccine shortages if we are over-supplied.
The trade offs are roughly as follows. We could wait until our entire adult population is protected before selling our vaccines abroad, or giving them away, or both (£250 million has been pledged separately to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – the highest contribution of any country, according to the Government.)
A plus of such an approach would be that we would then have a better idea of which vaccines work best. Another would be that by vaccinating groups and cohorts less in danger here, we would nonetheless be helping to build up herd immunity, assuming that it can be reached. Another would be that hanging on to supplies would be a possible insurance against new variants.
Among the minuses are: we would be protecting fitter, richer people here at the expense of poorer, less fit people abroad. Furthermore, more countries will get more vaccines as time passes. We would risk claims of a cynical manoeuvre – coming to the rescue late, when our vaccines were no longer needed so urgently, or perhaps no longer work.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson said that “there’s no point one country on its own getting vaccinated…“Britain, the UK, we can’t think of this just as a project for us and us alone”. He was doubtless pouring oil on troubled waters, but we suspect that there is more to his words than that. One senior Minister, asked by this site if the Government might order even more vaccines, responded by text with a thumbs-up sign.
That would be a minus for the taxpayer, but a plus for Global Britain, and for people abroad who buy our exports. Any plan to help others needs transparent criteria. One can see why Ireland would be early in the queue: if for no other reason than that we share a land border.
Elsewhere, should UK strategic interest come first? Or should priority go to those most in need? Either way, we must sort a queue. Which will inevitably mean, EU please note, that the first in line will be the first served.