The European Commission appear to have managed something that, throughout the pandemic, Boris Johnson has never been able to fully achieve: uniting the United Kingdom’s four governments. Westminster’s criticism of the EU’s vaccine blockade has been echoed by both Arlene Foster of the DUP and Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein; both sides of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide – as well as raising eyebrows in Wales and Scotland.
With the United Kingdom now having vaccinated upwards of 7 million Britons – around 10% of the population – many European Union countries are lagging behind, with the EU Commission having been tasked with procurement for the entire block.
Many countries within the EU have decided to go it alone instead; Poland amongst those to have started ordering doses of Coronavirus shots for themselves. As Britain fast approaches the 10 million mark, the entire EU has managed less than three million; AstraZeneca has said they will only be able to supply one-quarter of the EU’s 100 million orders by March due to problems at one of their EU factories.
This languishing performance by the European Commission, and AstraZeneca’s backtracking on some of the orders – potentially putting millions of EU citizens at risk – has led the EU to engage in vaccine warfare, attempting to block EU manufactured AstraZeneca vaccines from leaving the bloc, despite potentially breaching contractual obligations to supply the vaccine.
It was announced on the 29th January 2021 that the EU had invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Considered an option of last resort, it should only be invoked where there are “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” and allows the invoker of the Article to unilaterally avoid these difficulties.
Under EU law, the invoking of the Article can be appealed, with the European Court of Justice able to rule if the action is not “proportionate” for dealing with the difficulty faced, ending the use of the Article.
The EU has since backtracked on their decision to invoke Article 16; their decision had been criticised by many countries and global organisations, including the World Health Organisation who expressed concern that it would lead to a wave of vaccine protectionism that would prolong the pandemic.
Invoking Article 16 was only the latest move by the EU to prevent vaccines leaving the bloc. They had earlier imposed export controls that would prevent vaccines being manufactured in the EU bloc from being exported abroad; including to the UK, the United States and many other countries throughout the world. Some poorer countries had been protected from the ban.
With the different customs arrangements in Northern Ireland – meaning that it is effectively still in the customs union – the EU were worried that vaccines would still enter the UK through the ‘back-door’.
This also comes against a backdrop of a number of stories within the European media that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective, or completely ineffective for over 65’s, with a story from Handelsblatt claiming that the efficacy was just 8% in over 65’s.
The story was widely reported in British media before being pulled due to inaccurate reporting, with the German government also distancing themselves from the story. However, the Robert Koch Institute – part of Germany’s disease control agency – did raise doubts about the vaccine, citing a lack of evidence in over 65’s, despite significant trials in the United Kingdom and the United States, before the vaccine was approved in both countries.
The EU has since given approval for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be used throughout the union, however, the French President Emmanuel Macron was again raising doubts about the efficacy in the elderly. Following the blockade against exporting to the United Kingdom, Macron said the jab; “doesn’t work the way we were expecting to”.
Macron was also critical of the UK’s vaccine strategy, just hours before France imposed a travel ban on any non-EU countries wishing to enter France.
Whilst the vaccine rollout is going well in the United Kingdom, with hopes that the country can achieve herd immunity by the autumn, Europe is lagging behind and is beginning to track a concerning path that could lead to more vaccine nationalism throughout the world.
The UK may be accused of hoarding vaccines in the coming months – having ordered around double the number required to vaccinate the population – it appears that the rollout throughout Europe and the world will not see the kind of global cooperation that many had hoped.
There are continual fears about vaccinating less wealthy countries, where wealthier individuals are often able to buy their way up the queue, or where the nation have been unable to procure many vaccines at all.
If there is one thing that is clear from the emerging vaccine wars, it is that the world needs to work together in order to bring the Coronavirus chapter to a close as soon as possible.