EU’s vaccines blunder will cast kinder light on Johnson and Brexit

Friday’s fiasco let the Article 16 genie out of the bottle but may help resolve vaccine wars

British prime minister Boris Johnson: Europe’s difficulties could prove to be a narrative-changing moment for his reputation. Photograph: Wattie Cheung/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson: Europe’s difficulties could prove to be a narrative-changing moment for his reputation. Photograph: Wattie Cheung/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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Throughout the controversy over the European Union’s vaccine contract with AstraZeneca and the threat to impose export restrictions on vaccines leaving the EU, the British government has sought to stay out of the conflict as far as possible.

And on Sunday, as the Mail’s front page trumpeted “Boris’s double vaccine victory over the EU” and the Sun said the prime minister “foiled EU plot to snatch Britain’s vaccines”, international trade secretary Lis Truss toured the television studios to send out a conciliatory message.

“What I want to do now is work with fellow trade ministers to keep these supplies open and to move away from the idea of vaccine nationalism,” she said. 

British ministers’ public response to Friday night’s fiasco when the European Commission threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol has been a study in sorrow rather than anger. They praised the joint action of Taoiseach Micheál Martin and prime minister Boris Johnson in persuading commission president Ursula von der Leyen to reverse the decision within hours.

Narrative-changing?

But Von der Leyen’s blunder and the contrast between Britain’s successful vaccine rollout and Europe’s difficulties could prove to be a narrative-changing moment in Britain both for Johnson’s reputation in handling the pandemic and for Brexit. On Saturday alone, Britain administered almost 600,000 vaccine doses and the country is almost certain to reach its target of giving a first dose to everyone over 70 ahead of its deadline of mid-February.

The decision last year not to participate in the EU’s joint programme for purchasing vaccines, which was widely criticised at the time, now looks like a wise one. And Britain’s contract with AstraZeneca appears to have included safeguards that the EU’s lacked and which may have allowed the company to wriggle out of some of its European commitments.

Meanwhile, the EU’s threat to invoke Article 16, which can suspend parts of the protocol if they are creating economic, societal or environmental difficulties, came as the British government, along with business groups in Northern Ireland, were winning an argument with unionists over the protocol.

Von der Leyen’s unwise action has let the genie of Article 16 out of the bottle, reviving unionist demands that Britain should invoke it because of the disruption to trade caused by the extra bureaucracy the protocol imposes.

Vaccine diplomacy

The optimistic view in Whitehall is that Friday night’s fiasco will strengthen those voices in Dublin and Brussels who are pressing for a more flexible implementation of the protocol’s rules and an extension of easements and exemptions due to expire at the end of March.

Some figures at the top of the British government are eager to use vaccine diplomacy to cultivate a closer relationship with Dublin, perhaps offering to boost the supply of vaccines to Ireland as Britain’s vaccination programme makes further progress.

Johnson appears to have secured a promise from Von der Leyen that the EU will not obstruct the supply of Pfizer vaccines to Britain which have already been ordered. The events of the past few days have been humiliating for Brussels but they could serve to accelerate a resolution of the vaccine wars that will secure the supply of vaccines to both Britain and the EU. 

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