National Review

European Union Disgraced, Brexit Vindicated in Vaccine Blockade Dispute

Ever since the coronavirus first arrived in Europe, the European Commission has been pouring gasoline all over its own reputation. At the end of last week, the bureaucrats who run the Commission finally lit the metaphorical match and wreathed the entire European project in the fires of their own incompetence. For the last five years, the British and Irish governments have been at each other’s throats over Brexit. The same is true of Leavers and Remainers within the U.K. itself. The militant wings of Protestant unionism and Catholic separatism in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have literally been at war for most of the last century. And yet, in the space of a few hours on Friday, the European Union managed to unite all of these factions in opposition to itself. The Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) is panicked by how far the EU has fallen behind both the United Kingdom and the United States in the race to vaccinate the public. Because the EU didn’t place any orders for the vaccine from suppliers until three months after the British government did, Europeans are now watching millions of vaccine doses manufactured in Europe being shipped across the channel to Great Britain. Pfizer and AstraZeneca, both of whom manufacture large quantities of the vaccine in Europe, are contractually obliged to fulfill the commitments they made to Her Majesty’s Government before prioritizing EU contracts, which were purchased much later. Ironically enough, the European Union appears to be “at the back of the queue.” On Friday, the Commission announced its plans to remedy this situation by way of export controls. Restrictions would be placed upon Pfizer and AstraZeneca’s ability to ship vaccines to countries outside the EU. Retroactively violating the principle of free contract in this way would have been bad enough in ordinary times. But in present circumstances, such a plan is simply unconscionable. The Commission was essentially threatening the U.K. with a vaccine blockade at a time when hundreds of vulnerable Britons are dying of COVID-19 every day. And it gets worse. In order to put its export controls in place, the EU was planning to trigger Article 16 of its Withdrawal Agreement with the U.K. Article 16 is a kind of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency measure that pertains to Northern Ireland. It would allow the EU to set up customs infrastructure on the Irish border (the only land border between the U.K. and the EU) in case of an extreme emergency. The Commission clearly thought of its own inability to procure enough doses of the vaccine as such an emergency because it signaled its intention to impose the export controls in question across the Irish border. To understand the depravity of this move one really has to appreciate the EU’s political use of the Irish border during the Brexit negotiations that consumed half of the last decade. EU negotiators repeatedly proclaimed that requiring regulatory checks at the Irish border would be an act of supreme irresponsibility. It would imperil the hard-won peace in Ireland by pushing the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status back to the forefront of the Irish mind, goading and cajoling dormant terrorists back into activity in the process. The EU used the widespread popularity of the open border in Ireland to press for the U.K.’s perpetual submission to the EU’s regulatory and customs regime. Since Northern Ireland had to stay in regulatory alignment with the Irish Republic (an EU member state) in order to secure peace, and since Northern Ireland is in the U.K., the whole U.K. had to stay within the EU’s regulatory framework after leaving all of the institutions that write the regulations. This syllogism is so fatally flawed that even the EU itself didn’t really believe it, as I wrote about here. It was a cynical political play used in an attempt to bureaucratically annex first the entire U.K. and then, once that failed, just Northern Ireland. No invading armies, just invading regulations: a gentler kind of tyranny. That the EU’s priestly caste thought to violate the hallowed shibboleth of “peace on the island of Ireland” last week at the first sign of political difficulty is a welcome development. It has exposed the great game of political football they’ve been playing with that battered little country for years and which, please God, they’ll never be allowed to play again. Happily, no sooner had the Commission’s ossified apparatchiks announced their planned export controls on Friday than the entire civilized world came down on them like a ton of insufficiently regulated bricks. The respective prime ministers of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland immediately alerted the Commission to their fury, while Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, called the plan “an act of aggression.” Tony Blair, former PM and one of Brexit’s most ardent opponents, called the EU’s behavior “very foolish,” and the International Chamber of Commerce actually wrote a letter to the president of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, imploring her to reconsider and spelling out the manifold catastrophes that could emerge from a disruption to global vaccine supply chains. The Spectator has compiled a list of tweets from the European Union’s most vocal supporters, condemning the Commission’s actions in the harshest terms. The compilation is astonishing to read, though perhaps not quite as astonishing as this excoriating editorial from The Observer, which was a pro-EU paper up to this point. The Leave vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum won 52–48 percent. If the referendum were held again today, the Leave margin of victory would probably expand considerably. By Saturday, the Commission had backed down, calling its original plan a “blunder.” Britain’s trade secretary Liz Truss told the BBC that Boris Johnson’s government had “reassurance from the European Union that those contracts will not be disrupted.” She went on to say that “we’re pleased that the EU admitted that the Article 16 invocation . . . for the border in Ireland was a mistake and they are now not proceeding with that. . . . It is vital we keep borders open and we resist vaccine nationalism and we resist protectionism.” It’s worth considering for a moment just how the European Union arrived at such an obviously calamitous decision in the first place. At every step of the EU’s response to COVID, we see not just individual incompetence (although there’s plenty of that) but the consequences of a technocratic, centralizing, dirigiste ideology, which has played itself out in such a way as to expose the endemic shortcomings of the whole European project. When the coronavirus first appeared in the Western world last spring, the Commission allowed four EU member states — Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands — to lead negotiations with potential suppliers. In June, however, Von der Leyen and her health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, changed their minds about this approach. Their reasons were neither medical, nor scientific, nor even logistical. They were political. Von der Leyen wanted to involve all 27 EU member states in centralized vaccine-acquisition negotiations to demonstrate the unity and solidarity of the EU single market. Those negotiations proved unwieldy and ground to a halt. The EU AstraZeneca contract negotiated by the German, French, Italian, and Dutch delegations was ready for signature in June. Von der Leyen’s ideological U-turn on negotiation tactics stalled the signature until August. During the intervening three months, AstraZeneca was busily preparing to deliver tens of millions of doses to the door of 10 Downing Street. Vulnerable Europeans unnumbered are now six feet under because Von der Leyen and her fellow Euro-federalists were wedded to a grandiose vision of deracinated Belgians, Greeks, and Lithuanians walking hand in hand into a post-COVID age singing “We Are the World.” The whole case for the EU was that the pallid globalized benevolence of a senescent Bonapartist technocracy would be a greater boon to the human race than the liberal democratic nation-state. But the nimble regulatory freedom of a post-Brexit U.K. and the contrasting sclerosis of the emergent European superstate has brought about a state of affairs wherein thousands of vulnerable people are alive in Great Britain who would be dead if they lived on the Continent. The EU’s “founding fathers” — men like Altiero Spinelli and Jean Monnet, who sought to rescue the world from democracy — would have been appalled. The Commission has tried to shift the blame for Europe’s vaccination failures onto the drug companies themselves. Von der Leyen pointed her finger last week at the technical problems AstraZeneca has had with the vaccine yields in their European production facilities. “The companies must deliver,” she said. When asked about Von der Leyen’s complaints during an interview with the Italian newspaper La Republica, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot was somewhat bemused. He noted that the U.K., the U.S., and Australia had all faced similar issues with yield. But “the U.K. contract was signed three months before the EU contract,” he said, “so with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we have experienced.” In other words, the European Union has no one to blame but itself. Von der Leyen’s decision to pause Europe’s COVID response for three whole months so as to turn it into a cosmetic staging post on the road to a United States of Europe is what is daily costing Europeans their lives. The EU’s disastrous response to COVID and its ill-advised but short-lived flirtation with a medical blockade should, perhaps, be taken as a providential warning to those of us who’ve recoiled in horror at the populist turn in American politics. The European Union is an experiment in anti-populism. Its institutions were conceived and constructed to insulate those who wield political power from the will of popular majorities to the greatest extent possible in the modern world. If populism were the source of our present discontents, we should expect the EU to look like a shining city on a hill. But it’s clear that these people haven’t the faintest, foggiest clue what on earth they’re doing. In the last analysis, there’s simply no important political question in today’s world to which the European Union is the answer.

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