Note the date and time of reading this: Micheál Martin’s net message to Brussels on the EU vaccine conundrum is essentially correct.
The Taoiseach is just too polite to explicitly say that Ursula von der Leyen’s thinly veiled threats of a Covid-19 vaccine EU export ban risk starting a global pharmaceutical trade row which the EU cannot possibly finish. It may put up obstacles to the post-Brexit UK’s soaraway Covid-19 vaccine performance – but such a gain would be empty and short-lived.
The way things are right now, the vaccine scoreboard is the main issue that counts in the court of public opinion.
In big-picture terms that scoreboard tells us that fewer than one in eight EU citizens is “half-vaccinated” with one jab. Ireland is towards the top of that EU board – but that’s nothing to crow about and looks like coming at the argument from the wrong end.
In the USA, the comparable vaccination rate is almost four in 10, while in the UK the score is more than four out of 10 and rising.
The smouldering EU-UK vaccine supply row does not especially reflect well on either. But it is easier to understand the EU’s frustration at the UK’s vaccine smugness and the reality of what is happening in the market place.
That reality is about half the Covid-19 vaccines produced in the EU so far have been exported – and the UK has benefited hugely. Boris Johnson has strongly insisted his government is not operating a vaccine export ban – but again the simple market reality is that the EU has received no vaccine exports from the UK.
In reality, this row turns on the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed in Oxford University and now being manufactured under the aegis of the Anglo-Swedish conglomerate. Some of this is made in the Netherlands and Belgium and has been exported from there. Supplies made in the UK have so far been restricted to the home market.
Up to last week the EU took the pragmatic view, with some reluctance, that it remains a global trading bloc and a major pharmaceutical hub, and as such cannot just sequester vaccine supplies for its internal needs.
That point, forcefully made by Micheál Martin to RTÉ presenter Bryan Dobson, that the pharmaceutical sector is an interlinked chain, was not lost on all within the EU as this row has developed.
When EU ambassadors were briefed on the issue last week, there was strong support for tough anti-UK action from France and Italy and some support from Germany. But the Netherlands and Belgium took the same view as Ireland amid reticence born of a big pharmaceutical sector in each state and a strong sense of market realities.
Everything was compounded by the halting of the use of AstraZeneca vaccines amid fears of clotting. It has been restored to grace and has enhanced trial evidence of its efficacy.
But the tailback and negative legacy is a lack of trust in the product in France and Germany as shown in surveys published yesterday. That “vaccine hesitancy” is an issue unto itself and worthy of revisiting in more detail.
But back with vaccine supply wars, we note that President von der Leyen upped the ante last week, saying the EU would use “whatever tool” to ensure its citizens got the jab – and this included seizing supplies. In a German radio interview over the weekend she reinforced the warning that an export ban could result if AstraZeneca did not fulfil its contractual obligations.
London replied with big public rhetoric.
But Johnson hit the phones to talk to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a critical online EU leaders’ summit on Thursday.
The Taoiseach’s intervention was timely and well-judged. There has already been a notable dialling down of rhetoric from the EU HQ. The belligerence from the more rabid English Tory Europhobic press can be divided by 10 at least.
All of this is taking place amid a recrudescence of Covid-19 across the EU and more restrictions for an already lockdown-weary populace.