Covid-19 Politics

Opinion: The EU’s Vaccine Nationalism Is An Erratic Disaster

By Adam Bennett

Having listened to our readers’ feedback, this represents the first in a regular series of monthly Opinion pieces. Their content will not necessarily reflect the views of The International, only those of their authors.

“Britain will have to be made an example of – any recalcitrant government that steps outside the modus vivendi will be crushed. You are going against a combination of a bureaucracy in Brussels, and politicians who feel that the ground under their feet is increasingly brittle.”

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, speaking in 2017

It’s been nearly four years since Yanis Varoufakis made that statement. And yet, as tensions flare across the continent regarding the rollout of vaccines, it’s hard not to feel it echo through many of this week’s headlines.

The problem began when two drug manufacturers, AstraZencia and Pfizer, warned they would likely not be able to fulfill vaccine orders placed by the EU. According to Pfizer, this was due to ‘productivity’ issues at one of their plants in Belgium (an EU member state). Already lagging behind in its vaccine distrubution, the EU ruled that each of its member states had the power to block any vaccines made within their borders from being delivered to countries outside the bloc. Given that Pfizer and AstraZenica are currently manufacturing vaccines within the EU for countries such as Britain, the United States, and Australia, the move had potentially hostile ramifications.

But the EU didn’t stop there. Overring its own recently-signed Brexit agreement, the European Commission attempted to install border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In its own words, this was to ensure that vaccines did not arrive in the UK. The decision prompted outcry – not least from the government of Ireland, who claimed not to have been consulted before the EU announced the decision. After hours of very public backlash, the EU backed down. There would be no border in Ireland after all.

Settling Old Scores?

It’s important to note that Britain was not the only country set to potentially suffer due to the EU’s erratic decision-making last week. Many countries are expecting to receive vaccine shipments from factories within the EU, and yet it’s difficult not to feel the move represented something of a message to London. When European officials refer to Northern Ireland as a ‘back door’ for vaccines getting into the UK, one can understand how the policy comes across as especially aggressive towards Britain.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s Brexit vote, there is surely no excusing the EU’s desire to make an example of the country when the stakes are this high and lives are on the line. This is not a time to ensure misbehaving countries remain seated on the naughty step – this is a time for all nations to be working together in order to defeat a common enemy.

A ‘Catastrophic Moral Failure’?

In the spirit of celebrating small victories, the EU’s reversal over the Northern Ireland border is a step in the right direction. But such a small step is scant progress when what is needed are giant leaps. The EU claims, perhaps fairly, that vaccine manufacturers are not making good on their promises. In fact, the commission took the unprecedented step of publishing the contract it signed with AstraZenica, presumably as part of a PR strategy to defend its protectionist approach to vaccines.

Despite the climb-down over Northern Ireland, the EU is still pursuing an isolationist and narrow-minded strategy for defeating the pandemic. The uncomfortable truth for the European Commission is that, to date, Britain has been executing its own vaccine rollout far more efficiently than any of its own member states. Given the recent history regarding the Brexit vote, it may well be that the EU leadership is feeling embarrassed by the uncomplimentary contrast with a country on their doorstep.

But embarrassment is a poor foundation on which to build policy. Speaking at this year’s virtual Davos, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the EU’s actions as a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. Mr. Ghebreyesus didn’t make those comments because he wants to see the EU fail, or because he wants to provide Britain with a reason to justify Brexit. He said it simply because it is true. A global pandemic cannot be defeated through isolationist policies. When it comes to infectious diseases, there is no such thing as an island – we are all connected.

Ending Vaccine Nationalism

The EU is not alone in resorting to ‘me-first’ nationalism during this crisis. Indeed, the British Conservative politician and former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith described the EU’s decision-making this week as ‘almost Trumpian’. It’s surprising that Mr. Smith managed to make those remarks with a straight face, given the leader of his own party and country held up Mr. Trump as an example of someone who could get a great Brexit deal with the EU. 

It’s a pity that ‘Trumpian’ politics appear to have outlasted their creator’s term in the White House. But they needn’t last any longer. In 1957, the European ‘Common Market’ was established. Its subsequent success stood as a testament to the values of internationalism, co-operation, and the courage to look at the world beyond your own borders. In 2021, it’s long past due that the EU reasserts those values. After all, if it doesn’t stand for them, it may not stand much longer at all.

Adam Bennett is the editor-in-chief of The InternationalYou can find him on Twitter here.

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