Why the vaccine export row is a straw in the Brexit wind

The EU was right to back down on the Northern Ireland protocol. But this episode has illustrated a hard truth for Brexit Britain

January 30, 2021
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The bloc's behaviour has been potentially corrosive to trust. Photo: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The bloc's behaviour has been potentially corrosive to trust. Photo: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

What a mess. Who would have thought that the first crisis in post-Brexit EU/UK relations would have come from an attempt by the EU to block exports of vaccines to Northern Ireland?

The EU has quite rightly and swiftly backed down. The proposal to use the safeguard clause in the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop vaccine exports across the border on the island of Ireland was wholly disproportionate to the problem the bloc faces and potentially wholly destructive of trust in the management of the Protocol. This fiasco bears all the signs of a bureaucracy under huge pressure: acting before thinking, failing to consult properly internally and neglecting to consider the interests of the member state most closely concerned, namely Ireland.

This has been a humiliating episode for the European Commission. Let’s hope it learns from the experience. Reaching so precipitously for the safeguard clauses is hardly conducive to building a sensible relationship with the UK in the management of this most sensitive of international agreements. The Commission has stepped back, hopefully chastened and with the sense to approach the next crisis with a little more consideration.

For this will not be the last time that the UK and the EU find themselves in polarised positions over the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and, indeed, the wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Both are complex treaties, both contain moving parts and both involve much detail still to sort out. This episode is an early illustration of the hard truth that the end of the transition period and the signing of the trade deal late last year does not mean the end of tough and difficult negotiations with the EU. Across the whole sweep of the new relationship, the UK will find itself in constant dialogue with the EU. Much of this will be technical and will not erupt into the public consciousness. But some of it will be politically contentious and very visible. Those who hoped that getting Brexit done would expunge the EU and all its works from public discourse in the UK will be sorely disappointed.

This incident also reveals just how the EU will approach future bones of contention. Its systems are focused internally, designed to uphold the legal order that sustains the EU construct. At every decision point, the European Commission will act instinctively in the way it thinks best suited to protecting the whole—even if, as in this case, that means subordinating the concerns of one or more member states. 

The consistent rule of thumb will be that the interests of the EU will be prioritised over those of third countries. The UK is now a third country. That’s the new reality. The EU will only act in a way that suits the UK if it also suits the EU. Whether pressure points emerge over financial services regulation, over the bureaucracy of border controls, over Gibraltar or other UK Overseas Territories or any other aspect of our complex relationship, the EU will predictably and forcefully pursue its own advantage and that of the 27 member states. That should come as no surprise, not least since the UK will pursue its own interests with exactly the same vigour. But it won’t stop a puzzled sense from some in the UK that somehow the EU is being unfair.

This new reality will do little to endear the EU to the British public. In spite of the evident difficulties of the new trading relationship and the sad dearth of all those promised opportunities that were meant to magically appear as the transition period ended, public perception in the UK will most likely be marked by narky spats, puffed up by a Eurosceptic press determined to continue to demonise the EU and all its works. Opinion polls currently show some buyer’s remorse; YouGov polling this month shows 48 per cent believing that the UK was wrong to leave the EU, only 40 per cent believing it was right to do so, with the rest not knowing. Expect that to go into reverse as the cumulative impact of multiple incidents of EU assertiveness settles on the public consciousness.

The crisis over vaccine exports from the EU to Northern Ireland will subside. But the wind that brought it is only just beginning to blow. While the UK and the EU will retain many common interests, and will find many occasions to act in concert, when push comes to shove the EU will act to its own advantage, as will the UK. As this unfortunate episode has shown so early, that will not always make the relationship an easy one.