Some are calling it one of the biggest crises the EU has faced in decades. The European Union’s response to its shortage of vaccines has already damaged post-Brexit relations with the UK, and has warranted criticism from leaders around the world.
The vaccine rollout amongst EU countries has been surprisingly slow when compared with other countries. By mid-February, both Israel and the United Arab Emirates were far ahead of other nations in their vaccination programmes, with the UK and US also vaccinating relatively quickly, albeit at a much slower pace. However, even when compared to the UK and US, the EU’s rate of vaccination has been seriously lagging, as of 15 February 2021, as can be seen from the very horizontal blue graph line below.
Few and Far Between
So, how did the EU get here? Well, to put it simply, it’s mostly due to a shortage of supply from the Oxford-AstraZeneca manufacturing plants. The pretext of this shortage dates back to a scheme introduced by the European Commission in June 2020, which planned to coordinate and secure supplies of vaccines for each of the member states that were willing to join, in order to both reduce competition between states, and reduce the cost of securing vaccines. All 27 members decided to partake in the scheme, and the EU signed an agreement for 300 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine last August.
After being approved for use and distribution in the EU in January, AstraZeneca suddenly informed the bloc that it could only deliver a fraction of the vaccines that it had promised for the first quarter of the year, blaming the supply shortage on issues at European manufacturing plants. It is estimated that the shortage would cause a delivery cut of 60% of the original order, meaning only 31 million AstraZeneca vaccines would be delivered to EU member states between January and March 2021.
Across the English Channel, vaccination efforts have taken a very different shape. As of mid-February, approximately 15 million UK residents had received at least the first dose of a vaccine (albeit not necessarily the AstraZeneca vaccine), meaning that approximately 20% of the 66 million people living in the UK have received at least one dose. Not that the UK’s success in vaccinating millions of people necessarily prompted jealousy from the EU leader, but the steps that European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, took in order to try and solve the bloc’s vaccine shortages certainly made it seem so.
As regards the AstraZeneca vaccine specifically, the UK government had placed its order for 100 million vaccines in May 2020, just two months before the EU signed a deal. The EU criticized the vaccine producer’s inability to provide what was agreed upon, saying that “it should not receive fewer doses because the UK signed a contract earlier” and that “AstraZeneca’s UK plants had to deliver”. In an attempt to cope with the shortage, on Friday 29 January, von der Leyen decided to introduce export controls on vaccines leaving the bloc without consulting UK officials or EU member states. With the Brexit deal being solved and signed just a few weeks prior, after many months of stalemate in the negotiations, this move by the EU was not received well; even the World Health Organization criticized von der Leyen, claiming that the export controls would risk prolonging the pandemic. WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “vaccine nationalism” could lead to a “protracted recovery” from the widespread effects the pandemic has caused.
Return of the Hard Border?
Part of the planned export controls included triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which would have suspended free-flowing trade between Ireland (part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK). The potential implications of the decision to trigger Article 16 were widespread. The move was immediately condemned by Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, who described it as “an incredible act of hostility”. In a longer statement she said:
“By triggering article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives. At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine. As one of the more contentious issues that plagued the Brexit negotiations, this move caused some serious damage to the EU-Britain relationship in the post-Brexit world.”
Foster was right to call the border issue “one of the more contentious issues that plagued Brexit negotiations”, granted that some sort of agreement had to be reached in order to maintain peace in Northern Ireland between unionists and loyalists, honouring The Belfast Agreement. In the Brexit negotiations, the EU made a point of how a no-deal Brexit could threaten the integrity of The Belfast Agreement when Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly threatened to walk away from negotiations, yet when it came to their self-interest in terms of vaccines, it appears that EU leaders were willing to throw aside that consideration by imposing border controls on Northern Ireland.
After widespread criticism, the EU Commission quickly reversed the imposition of exports controls, claiming that a mistake had been made and that the deal reached regarding border controls and trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain unaffected. This marked a serious embarrassment for von der Leyen and the rest of the EU institutions, unfortunately showing how relations between the UK and EU are still volatile despite having reached an agreement on the Brexit deal in December 2020 (for more analysis on the EU-UK Brexit deal, see Freedom of Movement Adieu – What the EU-UK Agreement lacks).
The EU has a lot at stake, with the UK being the first member state to decide to leave the bloc. Given that the UK is doing far better in the vaccination rollout than the EU, some pro-Brexit ministers have claimed that it is because the UK was no longer bogged down by the lengthy, bureaucratic processes that are part and parcel of being a member of the union. The EU is likely anxious that any UK successes, especially right after it officially left the EU and on an issue as pressing as vaccines, would promote Euroscepticism amongst member states. It makes sense that the failure of the EU to provide its member states with sufficient vaccines, which potentially would have had the power to help member states return to some sort of normality, could result in resentment toward the institution. Von der Leyen and the Commission’s aggressive action with regards to the vaccine exports likely stemmed from a combination of fear of UK success, and internal pressure from member states over shortages.
The decision to trigger Article 16 will likely have lasting effects on the relationship between the EU and the UK going forward. It has already caused Boris Johnson and his cabinet to demand “a list of changes in the trading arrangements with Northern Ireland”. On 3 February, Johnson’s government asked the EU to extend a series of grace periods that would prevent border controls from being enforced between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The vaccine clash has caused irreversible damage to an issue that Johnson thought he had largely resolved with the Brexit deal signed in December 2020.
The Bigger Picture
With post-Brexit tensions running high between the two parties, it is important to remember that there is more at stake than competition over who came out of Brexit better off. The issue of keeping peace on the island of Ireland is crucial, after years of violence and terror were resolved and maintained by the status quo developed when the UK was still a member state of the EU. The two parties need to find a way to overcome their squabbles in order to find a suitable, logical agreement that prioritizes peace in Ireland, whilst also giving fair provisions for trade to both sides. Going forward, it is imperative that competition between the two parties should not interfere with something as significant as human health and safety. Vaccine rows cannot be the future. People are dying, and people’s lives in both the EU and the UK have been drastically changed by the pandemic. Disputes between the two governments cannot, and should not, affect the healing process that will be provided by the vaccine rollout.