The EU-UK vicious spat over Covid-19 vaccine supplies is definitely a proxy re-run of Brexit battles and reflects poorly upon both sides.
For many in Brussels, and indeed in Dublin, Boris Johnson is yet again using vaccine roll-out success to talk-up Brexit. His government is also maintaining the image for home consumption of “playing hardball with the EU.”
Many others think it is time London dialled it down and availed of opportunities which would be afforded by Brussels to avail of a more worthwhile and measured dialogue. January 2021 trade figures published yesterday morning may sound alarm bells, showing UK exports to Germany were down by 56pc and while the virus is partly to blame, observers see a big Brexit dynamic at play.
The vaccine wars, and associated allegations of “vaccine nationalism” slung at both the EU and UK have dominated the last three days. The headline statistic is hard to argue with: by yesterday the UK had given one shot to more than one in three citizens; the equivalent figure for the EU’s 27 member states is fewer than one in 10.
The UK, which managed virus controls poorly and had record deaths, is now soaring ahead with its vaccination programme. Another straw in the wind came yesterday when British Labour leader Keir Starmer publicly conceded his party faced a tough time in an election test due in just eight weeks, on May 5, for 118 local councils and eight directly-elected mayors.
Since the start of the year these council votes, along with Scottish and Welsh home-rule parliament elections, also in early May, were being flagged up as “a plebiscite on blundering Boris”. But if this vaccine roll-out continues apace it could well be seen as the day Johnson really found his footing in the job he had floundered in since landing in Downing Street in July 2019.
Which brings us back to the vaccination issue, and battles over vaccine supplies. Earlier in the week, EU Council president Charles Michel pointed to the lack of British-made vaccine exports to the EU.
This is exactly the type of accusation being constantly levelled against the EU which has been billed as using its 450 million-people bloc powers to militate against other nations, especially the poorer ones. The issue dovetails with the savage error made by Brussels on January 29 last when a very brief effort, reversed within hours, was made to seal the Border to ensure no-EU made vaccines made a backdoor entry to the UK.
But figures released to the New York Times by the EU yesterday afternoon made for interesting reading. In essence that supplies of EU-made vaccines are in fact helping the UK’s star vaccination performance.
Since February, the UK has headed the list of export destinations for EU-made Covid-19 vaccines, getting more than nine million doses out of a total of 34 million exported by the 27 member states. There is much internal EU tension about exporting vaccines from the bloc when there are also complaints about scarcity.
But Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said yesterday that even in this critical health situation the EU must remain a reliable trading partner. The reality is the EU is a pharmaceutical making hub which supplies much of the world.
The unseemly vaccine row was escalated by some poor wording on a social media post by Michel which spoke of a UK vaccine ban. Johnson flatly denied this.
But against that it is not being denied that supplies of UK-made Covid-19 vaccines are not making their way to the EU. Interestingly, the EU yesterday extended its right to ban exports for another three months to the end of June.
EU officials, however, point out that so far this measure has been very little used with only one small consignment blocked. Now given ongoing tensions on the issue of supplies, we may see it being deployed far more.